Is the remote kingdom of Bhutan the happiest place on earth? A team of adventurers hope to find out next month.
Starting Oct. 27, the team will embark on a a 42-day trek via foot and mountain bike across the mountainous nation that many have compared to the mythical Shangri-La. "Expedition Bhutan" hopes to understand the culture and geography of a country whose king states as his goal to boost the nation's "gross national happiness" rather than its gross domestic product.
The trek's leader Terri Schneider, a coach, expedition racer and triathlete from Santa Cruz, Calif., says the journey has many goals.
"The main objective is to experience the country in a physical way, but a bigger motive is to tap into their culture, really getting a sense of what they are doing politically, and look into the concept of gross national happiness," Schneider told Discovery News. "Is it real? Are they some of the happiest people? We want to dive in and examine this and see up close what is going on."
The four-person team will be followed by a documentary film crew to record its findings, as well as a group of sponsors who will trek alongside the racers for the first 10 days.
Bhutan opened its doors to Western tourists in the 1970s. This is the first time that outsiders will be allowed to travel all the way from the western border to the eastern border across 300 miles of unforgiving Himalayan landscape.
Uncovering the secrets of Bhutan's happiness quotient has been the goal of many visitors. The country's king and its people say they strive for social and economic equality rather than the accumulation of wealth as a prime goal. The concept of "Gross National Happiness" over the pursuit of Gross Domestic Product was adopted in 1972 by its former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It is based on four pillars: conservation of the environment; equitable and sustainable development; good governance and preservation of culture.
Wangchuck, whose eldest son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is now the reigning king, convinced his subjects that democracy was a better way to govern, rather than by absolute monarchy. After a transition, Bhutan is now a constitutional monarchy -- much like the United Kingdom -- where the king has mainly ceremonial duties.
Eric Weiner spent time in Bhutan researching his 2008 book "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World." He says Bhutan isn't perfect, but the society seem to be onto something special.
"What they are doing is redefining the question of national progress," Weiner said. "The king said let's do things differently and not just pursue wealth at any cost."
Weiner's book looked at many nations and the various international surveys that attempt to measure how happy people say they are. Denmark usually ranks at the top, the United States is in the top 15, and many former Soviet-bloc nations rank toward the bottom. Bhutan does well, but doesn't beat out the Nordic nations.
Because Bhutan was slow in developing, it didn't adopt the same kind of materialistic culture that pursued economic development over other goals, as is seen in other second- or third-world nations. When the outside world finally did reach Bhutan just recently -- Bhutan didn't receive television until 1999, and the capital city's only stoplight was put up only a few years ago (since taken down and replaced with traffic cops) -- its king decided to pursue happiness rather than a focus on consumption.
Bhutan -- population 708,000 -- still has problems with poverty, education and health. Fewer than 53 percent of Bhutanese adults can read, according to the World Health Organization -- that's behind both Bangladesh and New Guinea -- while life expectancy is 63 years (in 2009), behind most Western and Asian nations. There are also political issues with a Nepali-speaking minority group, according to Weiner, as well as sometimes touchy relations with its big neighbor to the north, China.
At the same time, the Bhutanese practice Buddhist religion and culture, which may account for their reputation as a happy people.
"There's a kind of innocence about the place and people that I haven't found any place in the world," Weiner said.
As for the adventure racers, they hope to connect with Bhutanese people as they hike from village to village on a route that varies from 10,000 to 17,000 feet in elevation, according to Schneider. They also hope to take part in archery contests in conjunction with the Bhutan Olympic Committee. The nation will be sending boxers, archers and Tae Kwon Do athletes to the London Olympic Games next summer.
"The objective of the film is to get people thinking about what a little tiny country could teach the western world," Schneider said. "There could be some lessons there. The other is the general inquiry about what happiness means to you. Can happiness be found in a goat herder who lives in a shack on a mountain?"
The adventure racers leave the U.S. Oct. 27 and hope to begin their trek on Nov. 4. Updates will be posted here.