Tiny Bhutan – the last of the Himalayan kingdoms, is in a beautiful, medieval time warp
Photos: Chris Caldicott : words Susan Ward Davies
I went to Bhutan, probably my most memorable trip ever, in 2008. This is what I wrote then, and because it has been stuck in such a time warp, it hasn't changed much. Definitely one for the bucket list, it is still like something out of a fairy tale - but for how much longer?
It's around midnight. Three of us are cocooned in a tiny tent on top of a mountain in the Bhutanese Himalayas, and it's bone- chillingly cold. Snow is pattering on the canvas – tiny little balls of it - like miniature hailstones. It is way below freezing (minus 11, we discover in the morning), and I've been violently shivering for hours. Is this what hypothermia feels like? I try to take my mind off my perilously chilled state by remembering our guide's campfire talk of leopards and black bears …
How can I not be asleep? We climbed for about five hours today – up from the little town of Paro (2280 metres), through beautiful forests of pine trees wraithed in lace- like lichen, along rocky narrow paths that wound around the mountain. As we got higher, branches clinked with icicles, and the altitude made our hearts race and our breathing like a 50-a-day smoker's. And when we (finally) clambered to the top, it felt so amazing, I half-expected ticker tape and a 21- gun salute.
We pitched camp around 4pm , on a small, snowy plateau 3800 metres up among the spectacular white peaks. The tiny Bundra monastery is just above us, clinging to the mountainside. It's a magical spot. In front, a hilltop is covered in white, five- metre- tall prayer flags (the Bhutanese put these everywhere: the higher, the more auspicious – so archers even fire them up to really inaccessible peaks). On another stands a small chorten (stone monument containing Buddhist relics).
Black yaks graze through the snow. Our guides unloaded the team of pack ponies, put up tents, gathered firewood, and prepared super. We just photographed the sunset (endlessly), huddled around the fire drinking yak butter tea and hot ginger, ate our vegetable paneer, dahl and red rice by candlelight, stumbled about giggling in the dark to find the loo tent (a sentry box affair erected above a hole in the ground) – and generally felt drunk on the exhilaration of it all.
But now it's dark, and very silent, except for the distant bells on the wandering ponies, and my heart pounding .
My problem is a mix of a too-vivid imagination and Woody Allen-style hypochondria, rendering me liable to recreate a symptom within minutes of hearing about it. We've been getting the low-down on Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS: nausea, headache, palpitations) all day, so I'm anticipating a full-on attack any minute. I've turned our tent into a mini ER : Rescue Remedy (for panic) ; aspirin (for DVT); immodium (already regretting the yak butter tea), Fisherman's Friends (breathing difficulties) , and Piriton, for random allergies… all laid out on the ground sheet.
And then there is the utter blackness; did I mention I was claustrophobic? Inside my sleeping bag, I grip on to my hopelessly weak torch in case I wake thinking I'm in a coffin. We've camped in the shadow of a 'sky burial' site , a dramatic looking peak where the bodies of the dead are taken to be eaten by vultures – not an image you want cropping up in your dreams.
My long- suffering sister Caroline is sharing my tent and determinedly feigning sleep .
Suddenly I hear muffled crying. Julia – in the neighbouring tent – is having an AMS moment too. Her tent- mate helpfully offers her a pashmina (girls, eh?), unaware of my pharmacy next door.
But although panic attacks and indigestion can mimic AMS, the real thing can be fatal, and our guide is taking no chances. The only cure is to get to a lower altitude. Two of the guides are despatched to lead her down, and they disappear into the darkness for the three-hour descent.
Completely upstaged, I finally sleep.
We wake at dawn to fresh snow, and the sunrise flooding the mountains with rosy light. It is beyond spectacular. I feel like Sir Edmund Hillary on Everest (which isn't all that far away), and would do it all again in a heart-beat - despite being such a wuss in the dark.
Bhutan has long been on my wish list. I always loved the sound of this tiny country, sandwiched between India, Tibet and Nepal. The last of the Buddhist Himalayan Kingdoms, everyone still wears House- of- Flying- Daggers- style traditional costume (men in ghos – a kind of knee -length kimono, the women in silk jackets and kiras - long sarongs); success is measured as Gross National Happiness and not as GNP; Harry Potter-esque monasteries tower over sacred rivers, pigs get stoned on wild cannabis (the locals only recently cottoned on) , houses - built in the three- storey, ancient style- are works of art, and even the petrol stations are decorated in hand-painted friezes.
You need a stiff drink before flying in. The only room for an airstrip among the valleys, river gorges and mountains, is Paro, a small, pretty town in the west. But even here the pilot has to weave in between the craggy, snow -topped peaks, swoop down, almost clipping rooftops, and bank sharply as he approaches the tarmac. The three small Druk Airline planes are the only ones that can land here, as their pilots are specially trained and deemed to be the world's best - a thought you may want to hold on to as you watch the wing tips practically grazing the mountainsides.
It isn't only the landscape that used to make this tiny Kingdom inaccessible. The size of Switzerland, with a population of just under 800,000, it only opened its doors (hesitantly) to westerners in the 70s, but since the privatisation of tourism, in 1991, a few more (but of the high-spend variety) have been encouraged. Now more changes are afoot: in 2008, the 53 year old King Jigme Singye Wangchuck handed over power to his (then) 28 year old son, Khesar (making him the world's youngest head of state), and announced the country' s first ever elections.
From Paro airport it's a two -hour drive to Thimpu, Bhutan's tiny capital, winding past rivers and through valleys dotted with white-walled and dark-wood farm houses, across ancient bridges festooned with strings of primary- coloured prayer flags. Perched above the city is Amankora , one of Bhutan's five Aman hotels. The group is renowned for their luxury minimalism, and this one is true to form. Built like a Dzong (Bhutan's ubiquitous fort /monastery), it is a white, austere building with fortress- style slit windows and a huge stone courtyard edged with benches. Log- burning stoves warm the rooms, giving the feel of a cosy, modern hunting lodge . As night falls, we loll on thick cushions, swathed in pashminas, while local dancers perform around a blazing fire in the courtyard. It's like a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon : all swirly silk robes, ferocious masks and flashing knives .
At dawn, warmed by Aman's amazing apple tea, we clamber up a steep hill, almost hidden under thousands of prayer flags. As the sun emerges from behind the mountains, incense smoke (the daily dawn offering to the spirits), spirals skywards from the city below. Buddhism -with a touch of animism - is the main religion here (Hinduism is second), and people believe spirits are everywhere : in the lakes, forests, and particularly the mountains. Making offerings before almost everything you do is automatic: you sprinkle drops on the ground before you drink, say prayers before a journey, spin the colourful wooden prayer wheels when ever you pass them – and put up prayer flags at every opportunity.
Thimpu is a quaint, dusty little town of around 80, 000 people, whose most famous resident is a white- gloved traffic policeman. He commands the busiest junction, which briefly had traffic lights until locals complained they were too impersonal. Now Thimpu is the world's only traffic-light- free capital. Streets are lined with little jewellery shops (beautiful turquoise, amber, coral, jade and tiger eye), and general stores selling bright plastic homeware, herbal teas, and painted enamel thermoses. The whole place looks like an off-duty medieval costume- drama set - with people done up in traditional dress– but talking into mobile phones.
It's Monday, so our attempt at a Bhutanese –style night out is a low- key affair. We start off with chillies and cheese (the fiery national dish) and glass noodles in Bhutan Kitchen, then head for rounds of Red Panda (the local weiss beer) in the surprisingly designery Om bar, where people are smoking! (doubly shocking in a country where the sale of cigarettes was banned four years ago). The former king was always one step ahead: plastic bags are forbidden, too: and the environment always takes priority over development.
We try Thimpu's only karaoke bar, and end up in Thunder Bolt Bowling Alley, where a round of beer sets me back about a fiver .
A monk's blessing ritual (incense, holy water, cymbals) sends us on our way to Punakha - the old capital. It's only 79 kilometres away, but a three- hour journey, partly because of winding roads, but mainly because it's so photogenic we keep jumping out of the mini bus. Travelling around independently is practically impossible here: everyone has to book a tour - not as bad as it sounds as they can be tailor- made, and groups (we are eight) are small. A minimum fee of $250 a day is charged to all tourists, around $85 of it for the government, the rest goes towards your tours, board and lodging, with the posh hotels (like the Aman), charging a supplement.
The Dzong at Punakah, above, is the country's most impressive – rising imposingly from the banks of Mo Chuu and Pho Chuu (Mother and Father rivers). Inside , little monks (they start at seven years old) clamour to have photos taken, while the elders are in prayer. The haunting sound of long golden trumpets booms out from the prayer room, punctuating the low hum of chanting. We watch for a while from a gallery, before going down into fantastically ornate hall to peer at massive buddhas and golden statues of demons.
You could stay at Punakha and then head east, but if time is short, you can go there and back to Thimpu in a day - as we do, and the next morning we return to Paro along the same scenic, twisty-turny road, past the sculpted rice terraces. On a hill just outside town is Uma Paro, another stylish boutique hotel, ringed by mountains. The 20 rooms have amazing valley views, but the nine villas dotted around the grounds have wood burning stoves in the living room, kitchens, and even your own spa treatment room.
When you're not snuggled up in here, you can learn archery (the national sport) or mountain biking (if you don't mind switch-backing down steep hairpin bends). Far better is the amazing 'hot stone bath' in the Shambhala spa. This is a luxe version of what the locals do by the riverside: hot rocks are heated in a fire for two hours, and then dropped, sizzling (when you bang a gong) into a hot, herby bath. After a long wallow, flop onto a massage bed to have your muscles kneaded with oil. It 's the perfect, pre- trekking treatment: your calves really take a beating on all those inclines.
So here we are on our final day, scrabbling over snowy rocks trying to reach the tiny Bundra monastery. We meet two monks about to embark on a three year, three month and three day silent retreat here. Invited in, we climb up three impossibly steep ladders to their new home: a tiny dark room containing a Buddha, with a small window overlooking the mountain.
We make an offering for a blessing and dice are rolled. I get thirteen – phew – odd numbers are good luck.
We wish the monks well (three years silence – can you imagine?), and make our way down the mountain, stopping for tea with toasted rice at one monastery; a chilled Red Panda opposite another - the gorgeous Tiger's Nest dzong, above, (the only place we see other tourists) .
Bracing ourselves for our flight out, we stock up with prayer flags and other auspicious paraphernalia from the monks' shop in Paro.
The next morning our plane is cancelled and we get a whole extra day. Not lucky for everyone, maybe, but it certainly felt like it to me.
Greaves Travel offer tailor made itineraries to Bhutan and India, including BA flights to Delhi, Druk Airlines Delhi – Paro, full board and lodging in Bhutan , transfers, guides, visas and Bhutan government charge
On the flight from Delhi to Bhutan sit on the left for views of Everest.
WHERE TO STAY
Taj Tashi, Thimphu, has elegant rooms bang in the middle of Thimpu, and the staff can't do enough for you (they even buttered my breakfast toast for me when I was late).
Doubles from around £210
Amankora , Upper Motithang, luxurious minimalism on the outskirts of Thimpu. Doubles from around £550
Uma Paro, Paro, como.bz, below. Beautiful villas and rooms in what looks like an enchanted forest, and a first rate spa. Doubles from around £225, B&B
WHEN TO GO
Autumn is best for trekking, with cold nights and warm days of mostly blue skies, and is the time of the Thimpu dance festival. Rainy season is June – August.
WHAT TO TAKE
Proper trekking boots from Blacks
Spare batteries for camera (altitude drains them quicker)
WHAT TO BRING BACK
Jewellery – gold earrings with turquoise or coral inset (from £20 - £120)
Hand made paper notebooks from £5
Silver bangles (from £15) and rings (from £12)
Stamps - from Thimpu post office
Traditional silk jackets (from £15)
80 of their unpronounceable ngultrum = £1