Archive for May, 2008


May 31

May 31, 2008

I was woken sometime before six o’clock by the persistent trickling of a six-inch-wide creek about a metre from my head, and predictably forced out into the damp campsite morning to answer a call of nature.

I crawled straight back into the tent and slept on for another hour and a half. Once Max and I had both properly woken, reaggregated our things, and emerged into the light the pack-horses had returned with their drovers and were wandering around the tents, chewing grass, their neck-chimes tinkling.

We had a champion’s breakfast of porridge and peanut butter on toast and a little before nine o’clock set off up the green hill, walking onto a rocky bridle path that wound upward through moist coniferous forests. The path was definitely not used by cars, but definitely was regularly used by teams of horses, as the hoofprints and horseshit proved.

The forest views were incredible. We were tacking up a steep hillside populated by tall, moss-covered junipers. The moss clung to the trees in peculiar lumps, giving the appearance of tree-going creatures staring down at us. There were many, many enormous rhododendra of various species, some of which were still in full bloom, others of which had sprouted new leaves in the aftermath of their flowering season.

Around an hour in we came across a pika manning a small log bridge, a hamster-like rodent that wasn’t altogether like the ones we’d seen in Mongolia, with a slightly pointier face.

After a steady climb of around two hours we finally arrived at the prayer-flag covered hill pass at a bit before eleven o’clock. On the descent, we passed a lot of evidence of recent logging, including one active logging camp. The ground became muddier and muddier, lined with deep corrugations where teams of horses had passed by in lock-step. To navigate these one had to concentrate carefully stepping from one mud-ridge to the next. We stopped for lunch in a clearing full of cut trees, sitting on a semi-log to eat red rice, noodles and potato curry.

When we walked out, things got buggy. We were assaulted by clouds of small, irritating midge-flies, which followed us in microswarms about our heads, at times flying into our noses, ears and eyes. Following Ugyen’s example, we picked handfuls of fern leaves to fend them off, and we pressed on at a quicker pace than we otherwise would’ve, descending pack into farmland and skirting rice paddies on the very muddy trail.

We arrived at our campsite a fraction before two o’clock, but sadly, it was also fly-ridden. Our tent had already been put up by the advance team – Tashi and the horse-drovers – and I got inside and zipped it up tight straightaway to escape the exasperating insects. I found time to nap for a couple of hours during the afternoon, sending myself to sleep with the “Confession” chapter of Shantideva’s Way of the Boddhisattva, a Buddhist teaching poem that Max had bought in Thimphu a few days beforehand.

When I awoke Sonam, Ugyen and Tashi were burning juniper branches on a campfire in a mostly unsuccessful effort to drive away the flies, so Max and I remained ensconced in the tent until dinner playing patience, reading and blog-noting.

To our great delight, the bugs disappeared to wherever bugs go a few minutes before seven o’clock, and when we came out to eat they were all gone. It was Gayle’s twenty-eighth wedding anniversary (her husband was back in Victoria) so the chef had cooked up a couple of special dishes – garlic tofu, spicy tinner sausages, tuna, and a sort of giant mashed potato pie, so we dined ridiculously well again.

After dinner we set up the card table next to the campfire and Urgen brought out the gas-lamp so we could play more mushak until everyone got thoroughly sick of it. Gayle won two rounds and I won one, and after the cards were put away another hour or so was spent staring into the glowing embers and talking crap before I finally took myself off to the tent, and sleep.


May 30

May 30, 2008

I’ve just crossed a mountain range by foot at the highest elevation I’ve ever been… well, it was just one pass, but still, sense of achievement!

We woke earlier than necessary today, but managed to fill in the time deciding what to take and what to leave behind and condensing everything into one pack. After a quick breakfast, everything we took was strapped to a mule, Yeltsin and Sonam (the second) drove off to Thimpu for a rest day and we set off up a stony road on foot.

The climb was fairly easily compared to the earlier gruelling ascent to Taktsang, and Tom, Gayle, Sonam (the first), Ugyen and I filled the time chatting and picking wild strawberries from the roadside. The strawberries were minute, but very sweet, and grew in large patches all over the place. It took around three hours to reach Tsele La (the mountain pass), which sat at an impressive 3340m, and which was decorated with a rock stupa and a collection of prayer flags. Looking through the gap between two mountains and watching the land drop away in front and behind me was quite an amazing feeling.

Our descent took us through some beautiful dense forest, mostly coniferous with tangly undergrowth. Fast moving cloud systems cast distinct shadows over the road. At times all we could hear were the sounds of the forest- of wind flowing through the trees like a distant waterfall and of birds chirping, punctuated by five sets of plodding feet. We lunched at Gangkha in a meadow, eating from tin containers filled with rice and vegetables, and drinking lychee juice and tea.

After lunch we started upward again, keeping an eye out for the birds that were making a lovely racket in the trees. We spied a nutcracker sitting on a branch by the roadside, which was kind enough to pose for a photo shoot before flying off to go about its business. Later, the road was blocked by giant piles of logs and some heavy shifting machinery, attended by a group of shouting men extracting trees from the forest using thick metal cable and a bright yellow winch. The area we walked through was not protected, but despite the rather large collection of felled trees, the loggers seemed to be doing a decent job of managing the growth versus felling aspect in the forest.

A little earlier than expected, at about two in the arvo, we rolled into a forest clearing where our camp had already been set up for us along a small stream nearby the village of Gogona. We filled some time by playing copious amounts of Mushack with Sonam, Ugyen and Gayle, which Ugyen won almost all of. A little before dinner, the boys lit huge fire they’d constructed earlier. After dinner they found some Juniper branches to throw on top, which smelt great and sent little snaking fireworks up into the air, and we all sat about the fire while Ugyen whittled penises from fallen pine branches, smoking them when he’d finished to add some colour.

Although the penis seems an odd choice of thing to whittle, they’re actually quite popular here as a symbol of prosperity and, in a very subtle move, fertility. About a quarter of houses in the countryside have large, colourful and above all realistic penises painted on their walls- sometimes two facing each other, sometimes being held by a hand, sometimes with a blue bow wrapped around them and once, inexplicably, with a dog chained to them. It certainly evoked a bit of culture shock at first, I couldn’t think of anything you’d be less likely to paint on your house at home.

We crawled into our loaner tent at about nine-thirty to get some solid sleep for our day of walking tomorrow and fell asleep listening to the sound of the stream trickling away about a metre to our right, hoping it wouldn’t rain enough overnight to flood its small banks and creep toward our tent.


May 29

May 29, 2008

We set off from the Wangchuk Hotel after a tasty, stripped-down (by Bhutanese tourism standards) breakfast of porridge with honey, coffee and fresh fruit.

The drive was from Thimphu towards Punakha, and the weather was initially sunny with a few clouds. After a bit less than an hour of driving we reached a mountain pass where one hundred and eight stupas had been dedicated to a recent victory of the Bhutanese military.

Separatist guerillas from a northern Indian province (called Assam, I think) had been using the jungles of southern Bhutan as a base from which to strike at the Indian government, and Bhutan had been asked by India to stop allowing these activities. Keen to shore up its good relations with India, the fourth king of Bhutan had opened negotiations with the guerillas, letting them know their presence was unwelcome and unacceptable. After over a decade of failed talks, the king had finally sent in the military, who had successfully ejected the separatists with only a few injuries to their own side (Sonam couldn’t tell us what casualties there had been among the losers).

The stupas rose in a cluster on an island in the road, and the microclimate of the next mountain valley sent thick vaporous clouds rolling steadily through the scene, shrouding everything below us in fog. Above, prayer flags were hung abundantly over a sacred point and funeral ground.

We dove through the cloud system in the car and after a short descent arrived at the Temple of No Dog. The site had a complex history revolving around the Divine Madman, Lama Drukpa Kuenlay – the holy man who created the takin from a goat’s head and a cow’s body. This saint-jester-magician had journeyed through Bhutan almost a thousand years ago foiling demons, stealing wives and spreading his “dharma” of sex. wine and loose women.

The Temple of No Dog was named for the local deity of the area, who had once been a troublesome shapechanging demon inhabiting the pass between Thimphu and Punakha. Legend has it that a young man en route from Punakha to Thimphu had been delayed to the point where he would have to cross the high point at night, practically ensuring his death at the hands of the demon. Encountering the Divine Madman, the young man explained his circumstances at which the saint rose up and subdued the demon, chasing it down the hill as it passed through various transformations, finally capturing it in the form of a dog, burying it, and raising a stupa over it to hold it in place.

Later the saint freed the demon and allowed it to become the local deity, protecting the citizenry from up on the hill. The Divine Madman’s brother had raised a temple on the site in his honour.

We wandered down a windy terrace of rice paddies to the temple, balancing on a narrow causeway of dried clay between the irrigated fields, and then climbing a short trail past a family who had already visited that day. As we crossed a small garden towards the holy building, Sonam mildly goaded a surly goat roped to a stake, which then leapt at Max viciously and butted her in the hip, causing a moment’s consternation, but no serious harm.

Inside the temple we found a shrine devoted to the Divine Madman, with a magical bow and arrow said to bestow awesome fertility upon women and men who grasped them and held them to their foreheads. The tangkha frescoes of the interior of the temple included an impressive frieze depicting all of the adventures of the saint, including the creation of the takin, the subdual of various demons with his erect penis, and the stealing of one of his wives from an unlucky Bhutanese farmer, among others.

In one story the madman came across a village where all the locals had been eaten by a hungry demon, barring one old woman. She wailed at the madman and described her terrible plight, whereupon he told her to give him wine and lay out on the hillside with no clothes on, his enormous erect penis clearly visible. He used his magical powers to cease breathing entirely. After a time the demon arrived and seeing him, became confused. If he was not breathing and therefore dead, how could his penis be so erect? Taking advantage of the moment, the saint leapt up and beat the demon into submission with his boner, breaking its tooth and banishing it forever from the area. Such was his awesome power.

We lunched on the top floor of a multi-storeyed farmhouse, and drove on through Wangdue province. After a little while we arrived at Wangdue Phodrang (a.k.a. as “windy phodrang” or Windy Palace for the driving winds that blow in this part of Bhutan), the third oldest dzong in the country. The building is currently under heavy renovation as part of a project partly funded by the government, but mostly by sponsorship from outside Bhutan. All of the cubed wooden eaves around the outside of the building have been entirely replaced and are awaiting a repaint by local artisans. Inside, we found an enormous central courtyard where local festivals are held, with elephant and dragon gargoyles looking down from the keep. The central gate was overseen by a peculiar emblem featuring an evil mask in the Tantric style and two attendant dancing skeletons.

At the rear of the dzong we found a magnificent altar room with textile hangings blown here and there by the wind through an enormous sky window to the north, and figures of Shakyamunyi, Dipankhara and Maitreya, the Buddhas of the Present, Past and Future eras. It’s said that Maitreya Buddha will arrive on this plane five thousand years after the time of Shakyamunyi (Gautama) – so we still have two and a half thousand years to wait. As Sonam explained, when Maitreya arrives, all humans will be the size of thumbs, and he will wander amongst them as an arm-sized giant.

There followed a long drive in which we descended the best part of a thousand metres and then ascended to 2900 metres again, finally arriving in Phobjikha, a rustic village of terraces and potato fields. Our destination was a grass-covered campsite overrun by the local cattle, where we found our trekking team and the “other tourist” we’d heard about already waiting for us.

The “other tourist”, who Sonam had told us was an American, turned out actually to be a fiftyish Australian woman called Gayle, a massage therapist and ballroom dancing instructor from rural Victoria. We introduced ourselves and set about getting to know each other. Gayle was travelling with a guide, Ugyen, and a driver, Sonam (confusingly) of her own, and it was immediately clear that Ugyen was a bit of a joker.

Max and I wandered up into the village with our camera and teased some of the local kids by showing them their pictures on the LCD, getting back around seven o’clock. The camp chef had cooked us a typical six-dish extravaganza which we tucked into in a communal tent in the middle of the campsite. As usual, we weren’t able to finish everything. It gets a bit embarrassing after a while, although I’m quite certain there’s no expectation that we should clean all the plates.

We rounded out the day playing yankee euchre with Gayle, and then Mongolian mushuk with Gayle, Ugyen and Sonam.


May 28

May 28, 2008

We had a jam-packed morning and lazy afternoon today. Our itinerary included stops at an impressive Tibetan-style stupa built in memory of the third king by his mother, a refuge for the endagered and incredibly odd Takin, a Buddhist nunnery, a tech school teaching the thirteen arts and crafts of Bhutan, a folk village museum and a clinic employing traditional medicine, followed by a leisurely wander around town and muchos relaxing in our hotel room.

The Takin, the national animal of Bhutan, is a bizarre antelope-like creature with no close living relatives. It was created when the disciples of a holy lama asked the lama to perform a miracle- to which he agreed, but only if they first gave him a cow and a goat, to which they agreed. He ate both the cow and the goat whole, leaving only the bones, after which he put the skull of the goat on the body of the cow. As he turned away, the creature took to life and started grazing on the surrounding meadow. Takin arebig, gentle things with goat-like horns and short legs with split-toe hooves.

The tech school was very interesting and made me wish I studied there. The students were taught blacksmithy, embroidery, painting, silk-screening, woodcarving, doll-making, weaving and, presumably, six other arts we didn’t get a look at. The students were pretty impressive- in one of the rooms upstairs three girls were working on a two by four metre tanka (Buddhist religious painting) with some astounding detail. Tanka are as much science as art, there are very strict rules of proportion for the figures of gods and humans and millions of symbols. Each god has many avatars, some serene golden humanoids, and some multiple-eyed, multiple-armed demons.

The folk museum was actually an old residence that had been maintained and housed a collection of implements used in everyday rural life. The traditional houses here are quite large and generally three storeys tall. The first floor consisted of a courtyard complete with an incense burner the size of a pizza oven and the barn and dairy. The second floor was a grain silo and store room,and the third the living quarters, with an east-facing balcony, large kitchen with hearth, bedroom and shrine room. Typically, each household would produce everything it needed, from milk and meat to fruit, vegetables and grain. The houses could be so large because they didn’t cost anything to build- raw materials were made or foraged from the land and labour donated by neighbours.

The clinic, as well as being a place for treatment, housed a small museum showing a collection of the plants, minerals and animal parts used in medicine to balance the three humours- air, bile and phlegm. Some of the less conventional ingredients included the gallbladder of an elephant and an unlabelled object that looked distinctly like a mummified foot.

Tomorrow we head east.


May 27

May 27, 2008

We cut our baggage down a bit and left the excess in storage at the Olanthang Hotel while we tour around Bhutan. It’s nice to be a little more streamlined, and I hope we’ll be able to send a fair bit of stuff home at some point.

The day’s itinerary was to see the sights in Paro, not Bhutan’s capital but its third largest city. We started at the National Museum, built in an impressive six storey watchtower overlooking Paro from halfway up a mountainside. Until the third king of Bhutan – the “architect of modern Bhutan” — transformed it into a display cabinet, it was one of the dzongs that defended the mountain valleys in these parts.

The exhibits inside ranged from beautiful religious art, in the form of intricate thangka paintings depicting the organisation of the Buddhist universe and the principal personages of the variant sects of Nyingma and Drukpa Kagyud practised here, carved wooden friezes showing the Tara, and vast numbers of statues of various Buddhas, to a timeline of Bhutanese arms and armour, to the complete philatelic history of Bhutan. Bhutan joined the international Postal Union in 1962 and has been producing quirky stamp issues ever since. Some were holographic, and others seemed to celebrate the achievements of other nations rather than those of Bhutan.

The building itself was old. Heavy floorboards and low-slung ceilings connected by steep stepladders were the rule, and without a guide I would have gotten turned around by the maze-like ups and downs fairly quickly.

We emerged blinking into the sunshine and descended to cross the Bachu river that runs through Paro by an ancient footbridge that was the main thoroughfare of the town before the first asphalt roads were laid less than fifty years ago, and subsequently met with the car at the base of the valley.

We strolled briefly around the centre of Paro and picked up some postcards and a couple of icypoles before taking lunch at a nice restaurant on the upper floor of a series of shops, and then set off on the short drive to Thimphu.

Along the way to the capital we stopped at a monastery founded by a saint of Bhutanese history who was also renowned for building steel-chained bridges. We crossed one of these, a creaking affair layered with bamboo over a river that will flow more and more quickly over the next few months as the monsoon makes a small impact here.

The Bachu of Paro met the Wangchu, the river of Thimphu, at an impressive junction of mountain valleys called the Chungzuom Confluence, where we crossed a military checkpoint that was getting the serial number and business of every vehicle passing through, though the guards were more nonchalant than overbearing. Bhutan has strict regulations about controlled substances though, and some things are contraband here that definitely aren’t in most places, including tobacco and correction fluid.

At Thimphu we were installed at the Wangchuck Hotel (bearing the surname of the Bhutanese kings), which overlooks the national stadium, currently under renovation. Our room on the third floor is just as swish as the one in Paro. Sonam and Yeltin left us at this point but we were given an appointment to dine with Kelzang, the Alpine Bhutan manager who’d coordinated our tour booking for us, at the hotel restaurant in the evening.

After dropping off our stuff we set off around town. Thimphu is an artificial creation, and before 1960 there was, by the account of Sonam, nothing much here. At that time the king had a mobile court, wintering at the dzong in Punakha and summering at the fort in Thimphu, and taking all of the nation’s principal institutions with him. However the third king of Bhutan decided to settle the capital permanently in Thimphu and create a metropolis around himself, and since then a town of 65,000 has appeared, Canberra-like, in the valley. It’s not quite as clean or as picturesque as Paro, but it’s as relaxed and quiet as an Australian country town.

We popped our heads in a few shops and then found ourselves a little roadside cafe where I had a beer (650 mL bottles of 8% alc./vol. beer are the norm here, so a “single” drink packs a fair punch), whereas Max wangled a rather large glass of semi-legal sweet-smelling buckwheat “wine” (think highly fortified) out of the proprietor, who sat down to chat with us while we were there. He was an ex-teacher who had formerly taught pupils of ages 45-60 in a remote community, as part of a national literacy program. Bhutan is currently targetting 90% literacy, and many farmers still can’t read or write. Naturally he was a Dzongka expert, and also spoke English pretty well (and probably Nepali and Hindi as well, as do many Bhutanese). He’d thrown it in because, from his point of view, the state stipend for a teacher in that role – 10,000 nulchrum per month, or around $250 — wasn’t adequate to look after his family. He claimed running the cafe produced a much better living, and by the looks of things, a very relaxed one.

We returned to the hotel to chillax for a while before dinner, about which I was slightly nonplussed. I’m not used to having the higher-ups of tour operators arrange to dine with me in hotel restaurants, and had no idea whether it’d be an interesting night or an awkward one.

It turned out to be great. Kelzang is a very friendly and articulate guy with a wealth of knowledge about Bhutan and the surrounding nations, with which he liberally sprinkled the conversation. He’s thirty-one and has been running Alpine Bhutan since the mid to late 90s, which is when the tourist industry was privatised and subsequently further deregulated. There are now 350 tour operators to service the 20,000 and rising tourists who visit Bhutan annually, although 100 of those don’t see a single tourist in any given calendar year.

Our meal was a collection of rather nice dishes – fried pork, baby corn with tomato, chilli and herbs, spaghetti with a similar sauce, saffron rice and some tasty vegetables. As we tucked in Kelzang told us a bunch of fascinating stories.

Bhutan was first unified by a unique holy man with a will to temporal influence called Zhav Drung, in the seventeenth century. Before this time the concept of Bhutan, or “Druk Yul” (the Land of the Thunder Dragon, its nickname), didn’t even really exist and the various mountain communities were autonomous, though subject to depredations both by each other and by forces arriving intermittently from Tibet.

Zhav Drung was invited by the people to bring his teachings and his methods to the country, and did so with force. After his arrival lamas of the other historical sects of Buddhism in Bhutan resisted his growing influence, so he built the dzongs around the country to shore up his power, and steadily ran down his opposition until after a considerable period of time, the whole country submitted to his rule. During this period there were also continuous invasions from Tibet, wherein rival kings sought to reclaim holy relics that they claimed the Bhutanese had stolen.

Zhav Drung instituted a “dual system” of government in which a secular administration consisting of a handful of governors with sub-administrators side by side with a high monastic body, with Zhav Drung himself at the top of both sides. The governors were to collect taxes and tithe to the central government, whereas the monastic body was responsible for the protection of culture and the nation’s spiritual well-being. When Zhav Drung himself died, he would be replaced by his reincarnation.

What sounded good in theory tended to be very unstable in practice. The regional governors accorded more and more power to themselves, and frequently refused to pay up to the central government. The lamas of the monastic body occupied themselves by persecuting those who practised other variants of Buddhism. And it was never entirely clear whether or not a given king was truly the reincarnation of Zhav Drung – and those that were convincing, would often mysteriously disappear after only a brief period.

There followed a mostly peaceful two or three hundred years of history marred only by infighting amongst the governors and incursions from Tibet and the British Raj (the former were resisted, and the latter saw the Bhutanese leaders become as obsequiously friendly with the overpowering British Empire as they could manage). The internecine troubles came to a head in the nineteenth century.

In one famous incident, the governor of Trongsa whose successors would ultimately become the modern kings of Bhutan escaped assassination on a rooftop. Traditional Bhutanese roofs use shingles that must be turned twice a year to avoid quick decay. However, a certain place in Trongsa is only accessible to people of a certain rank, meaning that twice a year, the governor himself would have to maintain its roof. Two governors of other provinces decided that when the powerful governor of Trongsa went up to fix the roof, they would accost him and kill him. However, he sighted them first and threw one to his death whilst the other fled to Tibet in fear of his life.

The national stadium across the road from the hotel was also the scene of Bhutan’s last military conflict in 1885, between the allied governors of Trongsa and Paro and the governors of two opposing provinces. Over a thousand combatants fought a bloody battle in which one of the opposing governors was killed, and Trongsa and Paro emerged triumphant to usher in an era of new, centralised power. Twenty-two years of rule by the Trongsa governor later, the people decided that the peace was worth keeping, and dozens of important leaders signed a document giving absolute power to the governor and his descendants as the modern kings of Bhutan. This was the end of Zhav Drung’s “dual system”, and although the monastic body still exists it is politically powerless. The new leaders spent twenty or thirty years consolidating their power in some of the more insecure areas of the country, before embarking on the programs of modernisation that see Bhutan where it is today.

The twentieth century really only struck Bhutan a glancing blow. Different languages are still spoken from one north-south mountain valley to the next, although Dzongka is the offiial language of the state. Modern roads and a postal service arrived in the 60s, the UN acknowledged the country in the 70s, the first airport appeared in the 80s, TV broadcasts in the late 90s and the internet only a couple of years ago. Throughout that period, however, the kings of Bhutan have made a series of cunning plays resulting the country’s autonomous survival, in contrast to the digestion of several other Himalayan sovereignties by India and China, the juggernauts of the region.

It is extremely interesting to listen to the Bhutanese talk about Tibet, because they have a very different view of the country to its caricature in the developed world. Historically, Tibet has been the oppressor of Bhutan as well as the source of many of its leaders and holy men, and of much of its religious culture. Kelzang claimed to us, somewhat wistfully, that Tibet had a chance in the early twentieth century to escape the clutches of China and enjoy the same kind of fortune as Bhutan, but that it failed to do so because of the moribund character of its aristocracy and its religious hierarchies.

Apparently in Tibet, government offices were entirely held by the upper-caste nobility who subsequently grew disinterested in the work of governance and fell into decadent ways. Meanwhile a large handful of conflicting sects of Buddhism fought for control of religious education, also diverting their attention from the needs of the state. They devalued the teachings of Guru Rinpoche because he was of the much-persecuted Nyingma sect that allows its lamas to marry (Rinpoche had two wives), and mis-deciphered one of his prophecies. Tibet lies between India — “Dzhana”, “the white country”, or often abbreviated simply to “Dzha”, “the country” — and China — “Dzhaga”, “the black country”. The Guru prophesied that Tibet would one day fall to “Dzha”, which was lazily assumed to mean India. So Tibetan leaders resisted diplomatic relations and trade with India, and drew themselves closer and closer to China, with the result that Tibetans took on many Chinese customs that were later used by the Maoist government as one of the chief pretexts for their occupation.

Today even the Dalai Lama admits that Tibetan Buddhists might have had it wrong all along about Guru Rinpoche, and the complex “Guru’s mantra”, which has several extra syllables compared to the common six-syllable “om” of the Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvera, is gaining popularity across India and Tibet. Historical attitudes to the Nyingma sect are also being reappraised.

Sikim, a former Himalayan nation with a caste system like that of Tibet and having an aristocracy that shared close ties of family with that of Tibet, was also annexed without a fuss by India, swallowed quickly up. Today only Bhutan survives, thanks in part to the robustness of its body politic throughout recent history, and in part to the systematic foreign policy of the modern kings. Bhutan enjoys an excellent diplomatic and economic relationship with India, which is keen to keep it in place as a buffer state against unpredictable China, but eschews almost all contact across its mountainous northern border. As an official member of the UN with a burgeoning economy it’s now hard to imagine it losing its independence.

Still, things are changing here, and in some ways for the worse. As Kelzang pointed out, before the first banks and the first currency were introduced in the late 1950s, no Bhutanese could be more wealthy than two years worth of stored food and maybe a few extra artworks. Agrarian communities worked on a decentralised socialist basis, with all citizens contributing to group projects like the construction of a new house, leading to a natural equalisation of assets and circumstances. Now when people build in most places, they hire labourers, and the disparities of wealth between the cities and the fields are becoming more evident.

There are still some amazing success stories about the modernisation process. Its energy sources – other than petrol for cars — are 100% renewable hydroelectricity, and furthermore it exports 92% of its energy to India. Likewise the absolute power of the king meant that the persistent practice of serfdom, where farmers were merely lifelong tenants on their own fields, could be stamped out almost instantaneously by a royal edict that forbade any individual from owning more than twenty-five acres of land.

Almost all of the above is information we learned from Kelzang during a fascinating two hour dinner conversation, although I can’t claim to be perfectly accurate in my recollection of every detail. Afterwards it was straight up to the hotel room – I think slightly sooner than Kelzang expected – as we were both strangely tired despite having had a slow and relaxing day.


May 26

May 26, 2008

This morning saw us eating an early breakfast of porridge and toast to ready us for our climb up to Taktsang (“tiger’s nest”) monastery, perhaps the most recognisable sight in Bhutan. After a brief drive to 2140m, we made the two hour hike up a vertical 900m, twisting and turning on a thankfully well-maintained trail with my hopelessly inadequate low altitude heart beating so violently it was almost escaping my chest with each pump. Many pantings and water breaks later, we at arrived a cafe consisting of long benches overlooking the cliffs below the monastery and had a much needed cup of tea, closely followed by two other tourist groups.

I struggled to lift myself out of the pit-stop cafe that marked the two-thirds point, but after a relatively short incline the land levelled out again to an amazing viewpoint of the monastery glinting red and gold on the next mountain face. Our camera batteries had expired by this point, but Jeff and Jen, who we’d met down in the cafe but were also staying in our hotel, took a few photos for us. It was then some fairly hefty down for a change before crossing a bridge dangling delicately over a waterfall and climbing back up the other side.

The monastery itself is a sublime building in an unbelievable setting, and was well worth the climb. Built on the site where Guru Padma Sambava, the man who is credited with converting Bhutan to Buddhism, meditated in the eighth century, the monastery sits at 3040m and is a jumble of buildings arranged up and down a sheer cliff-face with exquisite carvings and wallpaper. There were a number of shrine buildings, most dedicated to the “second Buddha” Guru Rinpoche. Rinpoche is another name for Padma Sambava, a man born from a lotus flower in a lake on the border of current day Afghanistan and Pakistan and later adopted by a king.

A much quicker walk down and another quick drive took us to a little roadhouse-type place where we had lunch with Jeff, Jen and Jeff’s parents, who were seasoned travellers of 75 years old and had some pretty interesting stories to tell. After lunch we went to the ruins of a 17th century fortress called Drukgyel Dzong (a highly decoded translation would be “Fortress of the Victory of the People of the Land of the Thunder Dragon”). It was built to protect Bhutan against invasion from Tibet, who were apparently trying to recover a piece of one of Buddha’s vertebra that the Guru had brought with him on his mission of conversion. Unlike most cultural relics that had been destroyed by fire, the fortress hadn’t been rebuilt, though some of the surrounding forest had been cleared, the interior was overrun and crumbling majestically against the mountain backdrop.

Our last stop of the day was the oldest temple in Bhutan, a Buddhist datsan predating the Guru, built in the seventh century on the left knee of a demon that lay across the Himalaya.

Bhutan really is magical — the biggest city and the capital, Thimphu, is only 70,000 people large. Paro, where we currently are, barely has a building over three storeys tall. About ninety percent of the people still wear the “baku” or “kira”, the male and female national dress of a similar style to the kimono, but with large cuffs, cut above the knee for men and to the floor for women. The terrain barely has a flat section — the Himilaya wrap around a series of valleys filled with rice terraces and houses with intricate wooden-carved detail to the roofs, eaves, window frames and doors. Combined with the Buddhist stories that Sonam tells of holy men riding fiery tigers to mountaintops and monster-esque avatars with thousands of arms, it’s as if we’ve been transported to a different reality.


May 25

May 25, 2008

I’m currently relaxing in a duplex hotel cottage overlooking one of the mountainous valleys of the tiny city of Paro in Bhutan. Our room is a very spacious twin bed suite, and the attached bathroom has water so hot I nearly scalded myself into hospital when I showered a couple of hours ago.

It has been a day of extremely mixed emotions. At one stage it looked like things would turn out rather badly indeed. I woke very early, probably because I experienced a ‘flu-induced conkout around seven last night. So at six o’clock I was catching rays through our second floor guesthouse window and browsing the Nepal guidebook, feeling a bit irritated.

We breakfasted around half past eight at the Yak Restaurant, on muesli, fresh juice and Tibetan fried bread. We went round a few trekking places getting quotes on river rafting trips down to the Chitwan National Park, with encouraging results. I bought myself a new shirt as the one I’d been in for three days was starting to feel rather stinky. And after we wandered back to the guesthouse, I found a drugstore and bought some pseudoephedrine tablets (ten for less than a dollar!) to fend off my runny nose.

We’d got the much-desired call from the airport to tell us our luggage had arrived, but we still decided to leave an extra hour before our check-in time to make sure we could sort everything out. After our taxi to the airport, we navigated the customs channel in reverse, passing backwards through three or four checkpoints to the mishandled baggage desk, which like most offices of the airport is crewed by three or four idle-looking staff. We proferred our missing bag-tag carbon-copies and were taken by two of the staff, one the supervisor of the other, to two garage doors behind which were giant jumbles of unorganised luggage.

Three of our four delayed bags were immediately located.

After another twenty minutes of sifting in frustrated fashion through drifts of luggage, we took our three bags back out through customs and Max went back to the lost-luggage office in another airport building where we were told they would do a “computer check” to see if our fourth item had really arrived from Hong Kong or not. I was left behind with a luggage trolley laden with bags and a balked feeling that if only I were dealing with things I’d be able to make it all work out. Minding a giant pile of bags on a trolley in an area short on ramps is a good way to be made to feel powerless!

Max came back from the office reporting that our bag had arrived, and disappeared again in the direction of customs. What seemed like a very long wait, but was probably only about half an hour, ensued. The result was not good news. Max returned mildly infuriated by another fruitless hunt, and it sounded like the baggage staff hadn’t been helpful at all. We were both a bit further put out to learn that there’s a $25 on the spot charge per person to leave Nepal.

The missing bag contained our toiletries and towels as well as all the souvenirs we’ve bought so far, and it was getting a bit challenging to remain upbeat. We paid our service fees and went to check in the bags we actually did have at the Druk Air counter. The queue was full of comparatively rich-looking people which is unsurprising since Bhutan’s about ten times as expensive as Nepal to visit I think!

While we were queuing one of the baggage guys Max had been dealing with made a surprise return. They’d worked out what had happened to our bag – someone else had sent his assistant to the airport to pick up his delayed bags, and this guy had taken one of ours by mistake. It’s hard to work out how it could have happened if they were checking tag numbers with any care at all, but eh. Our bag was on a mercy dash to the airport, and was set to arrive in three quarters of an hour. Max departed once more to await it at the luggage office, but I wasn’t allowed back out the security checks with our boarding passes. I was left in conversation with some pretty mundane American tourists heading to Delhi, once more pusillanimous. But when Max returned another half an hour later brandishing our last bag, things were instantly back on an even keel.

The Druk Air (a.k.a. Royal Bhutan Airlines) jet was a small, but not tiny, Airbus vehicle, six seats across. We reached it following a thirty metre bus ride across the airport asphalt that achieved nothing but making all the passengers giggle. Our flight was a mere fifty minutes, but certainly not unmemorable. Minutes after we reached altitude we passed Everest and Lhotse carving holes in the cloud cover, an extraordinary close-up view of these enormous, jagged shards of rock. Everest must be unthinkably enormous, but it looked almost close enough to touch. I think I can understand what makes people want to climb it, although it’s already too late for the likes of us.

In the blink of an eye we’d commenced our descent into Paro, although we didn’t seem to spend nearly as much time going down as we’d spent on the ascent. The plane didn’t bank once or twice but seven or eight times as we approached Paro’s single airstrip deep in a valley. We could see hillsides passing beside us as close as fifty metres or so, and it’s a bit worrying to think what it might be like landing here in something other than perfect weather. The hills were paved with verdant rice terraces and dotted with block-shaped Himalayan villas, and the overall quality of the scenery was off the tourist brochure photo scale.

The airport was serene and beautifully decorated with dragons, and the whole landscape was suddenly populated with mild-mannered looking Himalayans wearing traditional Bhutanese dress – knee-length checked and striped tunics with knee-high socks and shoes. It took us a mere five minutes to get through immigration with our e-ticket visas and grab our bags from the carousel, and we were met at the door by two representatives of Alpine Bhutan, who guided us to a silver SUV that looked pricier than any car we’d seen in Nepal, but which was simply par for the course in an airport carpark full of similar vehicles. One was Sonam, our translator and guide, and the other was Yeltin, our driver, and they informed us that they’d be with us for the duration of our carefully stage-managed tour.

Sonam immediately handed us printed itineraries for the tour, and explained a couple of minor alterations to the running order. Given the incredible view all around us, and the reception we were receiving, we were feeling like monarchs of minor Himalayan kingdoms ourselves. The contrast with poverty-stricken Nepal where we’d been a mere two hours beforehand, however, was quite shocking. The place looked, well, wealthy – although looks can be deceiving.

On our way to our hotel, we stopped off to watch a friendly archery match at a local club between two regional teams. The archers were shooting with expensive looking compound bows at a tombstone-sized target with a dinnerplate-sized bonus section, from a distance of about one hundred and fifty metres, and every other shot was hitting the spot. It was pretty impressive stuff. Each team had a group of representatives standing to the side of the target keeping score by means of a tally of coloured strips tucked into their belts, and when one of their teammates scored, these talliers would perform a little can-can dance and sing a victory song. I asked Sonam whether alcohol was involved in the proceedings and he agreed with some amusement.

We’re staying at Hotel Olathang, a thirty-five year old hotel in the local architectural style at the top of a hill road. It’s a rather gorgeous place, I must say. We had a buffet dinner with a mixture of Indian and Tibetan style cuisine, and now we’ve retired to our suite for some rest and relaxation. Bhutan is definitely shaping up to be worth all that cash we paid months ago …