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Back to Bhutan

The last time Judith Steele was in Bhutan, a raven stole her soother. Forty-three years later, the Yukon day-home operator returned to the country to have tea with Princess Ashi-Tashi. The princess is 86 years old now, but remembers Judith's father Peter Steele bringing his young family to her country to study goitre in 1967.

The last time Judith Steele was in Bhutan, a raven stole her soother.

Forty-three years later, the Yukon day-home operator returned to the country to have tea with Princess Ashi-Tashi.

The princess is 86 years old now, but remembers Judith’s father Peter Steele bringing his young family to her country to study goitre in 1967.

At the time, Peter was a doctor in London, and his boss treated the third king of Bhutan, who had a heart condition.

To repay him, the king invited both men to his sequestered country.

Peter decided to use the trip to study a severe swelling of the throat glands unique to that part of the world.

And he brought his wife Sarah Steele, a nurse, and their two young children with him.

He also brought 12 soothers, called “dum dums” to pacify his 18-month-old daughter Judith on the long mule rides across mountain ranges.

His three-year-old son Adam Steele brought Aloysius, a well-loved teddy bear, who rode with him on his own mule.

Sitting with Judith in his cosy Hillcrest duplex, surrounded by Himalayan weaving and art, Peter, now 75, pulled out his book, Two and Two Halves to Bhutan.

It documents the five-month journey and includes pictures of Adam and Aloysius, and of Sarah plucking nits out of Judith’s hair as they ride along on a mule.

The nits were not much of a problem.

But when a raven made off with Judith’s last dum-dum, things got serious.

Peter threw rocks at the pesky bird until it finally returned the pacifier.

There were heavy snow storms in some of the passes.

And, at one point, the mules had to precariously pick their way through the rubble of a mud slide after a mountain slope collapsed into a valley.

But the next major hurdle was when Adam’s mule slipped and almost fell down a 300-metre ravine. In the stumble, Aloysius was lost.

Much like Judith’s dum-dum, Adam’s teddy bear was the one constant - his faithful companion in a foreign and very rugged land.

Peter and their 17-year-old Bhutanese guide Chhimi scrambled down the steep mountain and rescued the furry, little bear.

Chhimi was with the family for the full five-months trek, watching as Peter and Sarah administered iodine shots to Bhutanese suffering with giant swollen thyroid glands.

When the Steeles returned to England and later emigrated to the Yukon, Chhimi kept in touch.

Peter, who’d spent a year working in a mission hospital in Nepal before his trip to Bhutan, went on to become a doctor on an ill-fated Everest expedition a few years later in 1971.

In the decades that followed, Peter would return to Nepal several times, but not Bhutan.

It’s still tough to get into Bhutan, although tourists willing to pay $200 a day can now visit the cloistered country.

Then, 43 years after Peter’s epic trek, Chhimi invited him back.

Peter accepted.

When Adam got word of it in Chicago, where he’s a professor, he decided to join his father, this time without Aloysius.

That put pressure on Judith, who, despite her father’s amazing travels, had done very little of it herself since she was 18-months-old.

“I knew it would be the trip of a lifetime to go back with dad,” she said.

So Judith braved the long flights, and the family landed in Paro, Bhutan, in late October.

Chhimi met them at the airport, draping white scarves around their necks in true Buddhist fashion.

He was 60 now, and had been working for Bhutan’s foreign ministry, mastering the English he started perfecting four decades earlier on his trek with the Steeles.

Chhimi still remembered Judith’s dum-dum and Adam’s teddy bear and they shared stories as they wound their way through Bhutan by car, following the route their trek took so many years before.

Highways covered sections of the dirt track their mules once walked.

“Although you could still see it in places,” said Peter.

And the mountain passes were bigger and steeper than he remembered.

Chhimi took his old friends into Dzongs, Buddhist temples only accessible to Bhutanese. And he would stop on the twisty mountain road to relate adventures long since forgotten.

“He remembered an amazing amount,” said Judith.

“One of the highlights was just the time we spent in the car with Chhimi.”

He was someone Judith had known all her life, but never really met.

“It’s a new friendship,” she said.

Life in Bhutan hadn’t changed greatly in the last 40 years.

There were more houses, where there used to be forest, and everyone carried a cellphone, including the princess.

But overall, life remains simple.

People grow their own food, and many still live in mud and bamboo huts.

Women work on the mountain roads while their babies rest beside them; cars often pass just inches from the sleeping children.

“But they survive,” said Judith.

“The children are so healthy, happy and free, compared to our children here who are so Bubble Wrapped.”

There’s not real poverty, added Judith.

And instead of gross domestic product, Bhutan measures its wealth as GDH, or gross domestic happiness.

Judith saw her first yak in Bhutan.

Before that, her only experience with the long-haired ungulates was a stuffed yak her father bought back from Nepal in the ‘70s.

“I still have it,” she said.

Judith also brought tea-tree oil with her, in case of nits.

But she didn’t get them this time around.

Near the end of their 10-day trip, the family sat down for tea with the princess.

“She was a lovely graceful lady,” said Judith.

Forty years earlier, when they had tea with the king, Judith managed to pull off her socks and shoes and start picking the dirt out from between her toes in the presence of royalty.

It didn’t happen this time.

One thing Peter noticed during his 10-day whirlwind tour was that health care had improved immensely.

In the middle of the country, where there was once nothing but yaks and mule tracks, there are now hospitals.

And he didn’t see anyone with goitre.

Peter didn’t take credit for the improvement, although his iodine shots likely played a part.

Instead, he was just happy to have spent part of his life in a country few will ever see.

“It is quite a magical place and I realize how lucky we are to have been there,” said Peter.

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