Bhutan is small, about the size of Switzerland, and similarly mountainous—though more geographically remote. To the south, Bhutan is landlocked by India, and to the North, it's buffered by the mighty Himalaya. Before 1974, Bhutan was completely closed off to tourists and most outsiders, and even now, only a few fee-paying visitors are allowed in at a time.
The small mountain kingdom is home to a thriving, ancient culture, as well as stunning natural beauty. What many believe is the world's highest unclimbed peak, Gangkhar Puensum, soars nearly 25,000 feet into the clouds. Without a sizeable wallet, or an outsized sense of adventure, few people will actually get to visit this unique kingdom.
Tshering Om, 43, milks a yak at her family’s summer camp. The Masangang Glacier looms in the background. They spend five months of the year here away from their hometown of Laya. Recently, the glaciers have been melting faster and growing shorter, and the family is concerned they will have scarce water resources in the future.
Slovenian photographer Ciril Jazbec is one of the lucky few who have visited Bhutan. He recently toured the country, visiting small villages, exploring vast forests, and meeting local people. His resulting work is an intimate look at the small nation that few foreigners ever see.
His photos range from traditional pastoral scenes to what may surprise outsiders as modern lifestyles. But because it's Bhutan, striking glacial mountains flanked by deep, green forests are often in the background. The overall impression is one of a special place that hangs in the balance. It's a blend of history and change, old and new, impact and resilience.
Jazbec's picture of a volleyball game, for example, might at first look like an ordinary sand pit. But zoom out and you'll see epic mountains, extending taller than the clouds, in the distance.
Steeped in both antiquity and innovation, the largely Buddhist nation is perhaps most famous for happy people and thriving forests that persist despite looming environmental threats. Jazbec's work takes a closer look.
In Pursuit of Happiness
In the late 1990s, the Bhutanese government introduced a socioeconomic index they termed the Gross National Happiness Index, which functions like a social thermometer to ensure economic development doesn't squelch traditional lifestyles. The concept was widely hailed around the world for its originality and inclusiveness.
The index hasn't solved all the country's problems, of course. A recent U.N. World Happiness Report ranked Bhutan 97th world-wide. Factors like an income gap and unemployment partially accounted for that.
Another emerging concern has been the fact that climate change is disrupting the small nation's fragile ecosystem. Bhutan's glaciers are melting, leading to flash floods, and rainy seasons are becoming more irregular, leading to water scarcity during dry seasons. But even though the small nation of Bhutan is hardly responsible for most of the world's greenhouse gases, the country is responding by doubling down on its already impressive environmental regulations.
Over 60 percent of its forests are protected, and growing infrastructure is supposed to be developed sustainably. Electric cars and public transportation, for example, are being stressed instead of individual gasoline-fueled vehicles.
These measures allow Bhutan to not only remain carbon neutral, but also become a carbon "sink." That is, through its abundant forests, Bhutan absorbs more carbon from the air than it releases.
Bhutan's commitment to climate change efforts was stressed by the country's prime minister last year. His message about his country's lofty goals in the face of a changing climate was actually what first inspired Jazbec to visit and try to capture the country's resilient spirit in photographs.
"There's really something special about Bhutan's relationship to the environment," Jazbec says. "I've never experienced anything like that anywhere else."
Resilience of Spirit
The photographer has documented communities facing climate change around the world, but it was Bhutan that struck a chord with him for its sense of resilience.
When Jazbec visited the small kingdom last year, he was shown through the region by a "fixer," or local guide, who helped him visit different villages.
While working one day, Jazbec tried to shoo a moth away from his laptop screen. His fixer became so upset, says Jazbec, that he confronted the foreign photographer.
"He told me he believed every living being has a soul," says Jazbec. "He accepted the fact that animals need their space."
That sentiment may at least partially arise from the country's dominant religion, Buddhism. Jazbec says he noticed that many people there strove to be stewards of their environment. Whether motivated by religion or community or a concept less tangible, Jazbec was struck by how carefully the people he met regarded their land and animals.
As an outsider, he wanted to capture what it was about the country that's been long described as Shangri-la, a concept that has fascinated yet often eluded Westerners.
In Jazbec's photos, there's a push and pull between hardships and tranquility. Serene natural landscapes are the backdrop to images of hard work. In one scene a man wrestles a yak to the ground. In others, families relax after a long day of work.
For all that Jazbec can capture in photos, he has a hard time putting into words his impression as an outsider, simply musing, "It's just really something."