Cycling to COP28Bhutanese filmmaker-environmentalist will ride from Thimpu to Dubai to raise alarm about the climate crisis
When 14-year-old Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk knocked on the door of a stranger to ask if they had a copy of the 1995 comedy Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, he had no idea the person on the other side would make him a film star.
That was in 1996, and the Bhutanese teenager was in Hong Kong on vacation. Little did he know that the person on whose door he knocked was a casting agent. The rest is geography.
Within months, Wangchuk and his younger brother were on set shooting Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt. Chaperoned by their mother, both boys played the Dalai Lama in the movie.
“I was honoured to get the chance,” says Wangchuk, now 41. That chance meeting eventually got Wangchuk into filmmaking in the US.
In 2020 during the pandemic Wangchuk was cooped up in a studio apartment in New York. The isolation, and a bout of Covid infection, made him reevaluate his career and place in life. He decided to cycle from Thimphu to COP28 in Dubai to draw attention to the climate crisis and how it was affecting Himalayan people.
“I feel fortunate to be able to combine my love for films with my passion for sports and travel, all the while championing the environment,” says Wangchuk, who spent his early years trekking through forests in Bhutan’s Pema Gatshel district with his father.
In 2022, Wangchuk biked for a week, nine hours every day to reach Bhutan’s Thorthomi glacial lake, where the water level has to be drained to prevent it from bursting. He filled a bottle of water from the lake, and on 2 May began the first phase of his journey from Thimphu to India.
Supported by the Kathmandu-based research institute, ICIMOD, he cycled across eastern Nepal, reaching Everest Base Camp 20 days later. There he met up with 22-time Everest summiteer Lhakpa Nuru, who had collected ice from the South Col for his mission.
The ice joined the water collected from the glacial lake in Bhutan on the journey to Dubai. The bike journey so far has been a 'warm up' in more ways than one. Last month several Asian cities recorded all-time high temperatures. The heat of the plains made Wangchuk dizzy, forcing him to make several unplanned stops.
“We learned the hard way that riding in the heat and pollution can be detrimental to health,” he notes. To avoid this, he starts out early, and takes a break during the intense mid-day heat.
Wangchuk will soon begin the second phase of his journey cycling across India and Pakistan. He has not yet figured out how to cross the Arabian Sea to Oman.
“There will be more extreme heat to justify why I’m riding to COP28 to take the messages of Himalayan communities being unfairly impacted by climate change,” he says.
Climate summits like the one in Dubai are notorious for being talkfests, and the 2023 event is being held in UAE, a country that is a major exporter of fossil fuel.
Says Wangchuk: “COPs have failed to set a concrete and time-bound target to phase out all fossil fuels and meet the zero-emission vehicle sales targets. But this should not deter us from pressuring world leaders and corporations to be accountable.”