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.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A Copper Ridge resident clears their driveway after a massive over night snowfall in Whitehorse on Nov. 2, 2020. Environment Canada has issued a winter storm warning for the Whitehorse and Haines Junction areas for Jan. 18. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Winter storm warning for Haines Junction and Whitehorse

Environment Canada says the storm will develop Monday and last until Tuesday

Maria Metzen off the start line of the Yukon Dog Mushers Association’s sled dog race on Jan. 9. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Mushers race in preparation for FirstMate Babe Southwick

The annual race is set for Feb. 12 and 13.

The Yukon government is making changes to the medical travel system, including doubling the per diem and making destinations for medical services more flexible. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Subsidy for medical travel doubled with more supports coming

The change was recommended in the Putting People First report endorsed by the government

Chloe Sergerie, who was fined $500 under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> on Jan. 12, says she made the safest choice available to her when she entered the territory. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Woman fined $500 under CEMA says she made ‘safest decision’ available

Filling out a declaration at the airport was contrary to self-isolation, says accused

Yukon University has added seven members to its board of governors in recent months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
New members named to Yukon U’s board of governors

Required number of board members now up to 17

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

The Fish Lake area viewed from the top of Haeckel Hill on Sept. 11, 2018. The Yukon government and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced they are in the beginning stages of a local area planning process for the area. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local area planning for Fish Lake announced

The Government of Yukon and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced in… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Fire damage, photographed on Jan. 11, to a downtown apartment building which occurred late in the evening on Jan. 8. Zander Firth, 20, from Inuvik, was charged with the arson and is facing several other charges following his Jan. 12 court appearance. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
More charges for arson suspect

The Inuvik man charged in relation to the fire at Ryder Apartments… Continue reading

The grace period for the new Yukon lobbyist registry has come to an end and those who seek to influence politicians will now need to report their efforts to a public database. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Grace period for new lobbyist registry ends

So far nine lobbyists have registered their activities with politicians in the territory

Most Read