It costs a lot of money to get to Bhutan. You've got to get to Bangkok or someplace in India, and then catch the Druk Air flight into Paro, currently Bhutan's only airport (and Druk Air is the only airline). Then there's the $250 a day tourist tax, which isn't really a tax but rather the minimum you can spend while there.
Headline news: I can save you thousands of dollars and jet-lag. You can just go to El Paso, Texas instead. Okay, you think, that's kind of like going to see New York and the pyramids and Paris and Venice clustered next to each other in Vegas. Besides, what the heck does El Paso have to do with the last Shangri-La?
All kinds of interesting facts about Bhutan turned up in my research as I wrote Radio Shangri-La, which is a travel memoir about how, in the throes of disenchantment with my work in public radio here in the U.S., I went to Bhutan to help start a radio station. But probably the most curious and wonderful is the connection between this border town in the U.S. and the kingdom of Bhutan.
Well it has to do with this issue of National Geographic from April 1914:
Long before the vast, wonderful interconnectedness and lightning-speed of the Internet, a National Geographic subscriber named Kathleen Worrell in El Paso read the first-ever dispatch from the Kingdom, which was published in National Geographic in 1914. Written and photographed by a British political officer named John Claude White, this nearly 100-page travelogue was based on his trip several years earlier, which included being the only Westerner present at the coronation of Bhutan's first king.
I won't give away the whole story here, but let's just say that Mrs. Worrell's fascination with Bhutan as described and shown by Mr. White (whom she never met) gave way to this: from 1917 on through to today, every single building on the campus of the school now known as the University of Texas El Paso is built to evoke the Himalayan Kingdom. (Everything but the football and basketball stadiums, that is.)
Here's a picture of the majestic administration building at UTEP, alongside a picture of a dzong (government and monastic headquarters) after which the school's buildings are modeled. (This dzong happens to be in the capital city of Thimphu and this photo was taken on the day the Constitution of Bhutan was signed.)
Dzong government and monastic headquarters
University of Texas El Paso administration building
There are artifacts aplenty around campus, too, from authentic Buddhist thongdrels (embroidered enormous scrolls), to archery bows and arrows, and prayer flags. Now there is a growing number of Bhutanese students, too.
How UTEP got to look this way is an amazing part of the story of Bhutan, which is a part (but only a part) of what's in my book, Radio Shangri-La.