"Mountains. Those are not mountains. They are hills," explained our guide Karma. I was about to question his judgement - the so-called 'hills' were well over four thousand metres - but then I remembered that I was in Bhutan. Generally speaking, travel in Bhutan is helped by a suspension of rationality, consistency, chronology and any tendency towards impatience.
It is indeed a magical land in every sense of the word. On the one hand it is a strange mix of the bizarre and the extraordinary, the Asian equivalent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fantastical realism. A country that quite simply defies stereotype and cannot be pigeon-holed. It is a Buddhist culture that abhors killing, yet archery is its favourite pastime. To the Bhutanese the yeti is not a myth - Sakteng National Park has the unique distinction of being the only reserve in the world created specifically to protect the habitat of the yeti. There is even a post of the Royal Yeti Spotter, a post that has been occupied for the last fifteen years, needless to say without success.
On the other hand Bhutan's magic is of a different nature: its enchantment lies in its wonderfully endearing and friendly people. Right from the moment I stepped off the plane, I was taken aback by their charm. The soldiers were not only unarmed, but smiling and welcoming, even allowing tourists to take photographs. The immigration officials joked and smiled animatedly with all those waiting in line. Given the friendliness of the people throughout our stay, the king’s statement, “I am not as much concerned about the Gross National Product as I am about Gross National Happiness” does not seem so ridiculous.
Our stay, as with most visits to Bhutan, began in Thimpu, the capital. Thimpu is unremarkable and hardly worth a mention, except to say that it has the curious distinction of being the only capital in the world without traffic lights. It does however have one roundabout, which was policed by two traffic officials. Judging by the three dogs sleeping on the roundabout, this was perhaps a little excessive.
The next morning we headed east along a never-ending succession of hairpin bends. As we twisted and turned, I quickly realized that a Roman road is an alien concept in Bhutan and any gear higher than fourth is redundant. Fortunately there was a panacea to such nauseous twisting and turning: the scenery. It was continually and constantly impressive and is undoubtedly a defining feature of the country. It gives this mountain kingdom a sense of isolation and inaccessibility. It is this remoteness that has hitherto left the Bhutanese largely untouched and distinctive.
I was captivated by the snow-capped peaks, the sea of steel blue silhouettes of wave after wave of mountain, the steep forested ridges and precipitous drops to seething torrents far below. Ubiquitous prayer flags fluttered colourfully in the wind at the top of every pass. Blue, green, red, yellow and white symbolising the elements water, wood, fire, earth and iron, their expectant messages blown across the plains below. Occasionally bright and new, mostly old and tattered, the prayer flags were always evocative.
So too were the houses. Surprisingly large, white-washed structures, with ornate dark wood frames, they stood perched on hillsides with commanding views over the panorama. They're far grander than one would expect. Some have traditional woodtiled roofs, others sport shiny new corrugated iron, nearly all have a blaze of chillies drying on them. Colourful prayer flags rise up beside the houses, scattering dreams to the wild mountain winds. The walls, especially the windows, are a whirl of colour and religion with elaborate floral patterns of lotus, clouds and auspicious patterns. Each colourful and intricate design contributes to the unusual appearance of the whole.
Bhutan is often compared to Switzerland, not only because the two countries are geographically of a similar size but also because Bhutanese houses are oddly reminiscent of Swiss chalets. Driving along, such comparison struck me as unfair. For one, the scenery in Bhutan is far more striking. And secondly, although Bhutanese houses do at first glance resemble Swiss chalets, closer inspection reveals that much of their decoration is a little too crude and brazen for Swiss taste and sensibility. Many of the walls are decorated with phalluses, a Bhutanese symbol for luck and fortune.
It was, however, the dzongs that I found to be the most visibly striking architectural aspect of the kingdom. Of Tibetan origin, these huge citadels dominated valleys, rivers and major towns. Containing monasteries and set in commanding positions on hilltops or at the confluence of rivers, dzongs were built as military fortresses and administrative centres. Once upon a time they provided refuge to entire populations, today they house the state religion of Bhutan, the Drukpa sect of Kagyupa, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism.
Religion, Buddhism, plays an important part in everyday life. Throughout Bhutan, from the most densely populated valleys to the most remote mountain pass, religious monuments and symbols bear witness to a deep and respected faith. Prayer wheels turn, prayer flags wave in the breeze, sending the message of Buddhism forth on the winds. Even on lonely alpine passes the sacred mantra Om Mane Padme Hum is found, carved on slabs of stone and rocky hillsides.
Yet to portray Bhutan as an archaic and isolated Buddhist kingdom would be an oversimplification. Whilst Y2K filled the rest of the world with trepidation and horror at the possibility of meltdown due to a millennium bug, the king acquiesced and allowed TV into the country for the first time. He recognized the need for change yet at the same time is wary of importing western culture wholesale. Thus Bhutan remains a contradiction of past and present. Traditionally dressed archers use modern high-tech bows that are stronger and more accurate than their traditional counterparts. The country is a curious mix of old and modern and perhaps nowhere was that more evident than the Bumthang festival, the Jampar teschu.
We arrived in Jakar, central Bhutan, to find it crowded - this is obviously a relative concept given that the population of Bhutan is only 600,000. The crowds were evidence that the teschu, a series of dances over four days in honour of Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century, was in full swing.
The dances of the tsechu were old and simplistic. Being religious they symbolised the destruction of evil spirits. The costumes were bright and colourful. With much twirling, twisting and turning demons were banished much to the delight of the crowd. There was a pantomime atmosphere with astaras, clowns, mimicking the dancers and performing comic routines. One clown, wielding a large red phallus, was a particular favourite with the crowd causing great hilarity by picking on individuals. The comedy was slapstick and appealed to the mischevious Bhutanese sense of humour.
Strangely it was not so much the dances that I remember but the carnival atmosphere of the whole. It was provincial and colourful, reminiscent of a farcical village fete. Stray dogs wandered across the small arena much to the delight of the clowns who would make great show of trying to kick the dogs, which in turn made the audience roar with laughter. Toddlers ambled unaware into the fray, much to the horror and embarrassment of inattentive mothers. Families sat together picnicking. Dads carried young toddlers. Babies were strapped to their mothers’ backs. Friends gossiped together. Children wandered around carefree and happy. Young boys took great pleasure shooting each other with plastic guns. Manna for the camera-touting tourists.
The men looked resplendent in their ghos, a knee-length garment not dissimilar to a smart dressing gown with large white cuffs. Ghos come in a wide variety of patterns, which although reminiscent of Scottish tartans do not hold the same clan or regional allegiance. Anything goes except red as this is the colour worn by the monks. Women wear a long ankle-length dress called the kira, which is made of bright coloured fine woven fabric.
In theory the gho and kira are compulsory attire and to be fair the majority of the population does wear them most of the time. The Bhutanese are proud, and rightly so, of their customs and national dress is very much part of that heritage - so much so that I even saw a scarecrow wearing a gho! But things are changing. Whereas in the past the police would have enforced the rules to the letter, nowadays there is greater leniency. As if to illustrate this point a couple of young men staggered past in jeans and jackets. Later that night I fell into conversation with two young guides who were adamant that the gho will be in everyday use in ten years time. I am a little more sceptical and think that the gho will be pushed further and further to the back of the proverbial cupboard, assuming a largely ceremonial role.
Around the temple, the inexorable signs of further change were apparent. The atmosphere was ribald and raucous as the Bhutanese drifted amongst the various stalls. Some were intent on gambling, others on showing off their archery prowess or laughing derisively a friend's failure to hit the target. But perhaps the biggest draw were the food stalls, not so much for the food but the Star TV that blasted forth - the new religion of Bhutan.
In search of the past we headed east, away from the madding crowd. East Bhutan is separated from the rest of the country by a large and extremely steep chain of hills that runs from the Tibetan border almost to the Indian border. As we crossed the range by the Rushing La pass of 3,770 metres it did not surprise me to read that the road is vulnerable to landslides and is closed for periods of the year. It added to the remoteness of where we were headed, the sense of isolation on entering a hidden, forbidden world.
Leaving behind the cool, crisp mountain air we dropped some three thousand metres to the small village of Artuso, barely more than a collection of huts and houses alongside the roadside. Our arrival caused quite a stir - allegedly we were the first foreigners here for a couple of years – and as we sought out a beer in the local store a crowd of curious children began to gather. Inquisitive faces peered through the window and feet were shuffled nervously as everyone strained to get a look at us.
Timid at first, the children slowly grew in confidence and eventually one boy stepped forward and asked, “Where are you from?” As a delightful series of questions and answers began, I was impressed not only by the fact that they spoke English in this far-flung part of the country but how well they spoke it. Bhutan is a wonderfully friendly country but the fact that English is so widely spoken makes it more so - the Bhutanese are more approachable and travelling in Bhutan is less of a culture shock. Speaking of which I was shaken out of my reverie by their next question, “Do you like Beckham?”
Despite their interest in David Beckham, the children were delightful and it was sad to bid them farewell the next morning as we left Artuso to begin trekking. With bright blue skies we set off, walking through sleepy rural villages. Gurgling mountain streams rushed through the villages turning prayer wheels. The incessant chirp of cicadas, a crowing cock and tinkling of distant bells accompanied our progress. The occasional and distant murmur of voices drifted to us from fields far below - in defiance of the steepness of the slope, much of the hillside was terraced. Gentle rural hues dominated these scenes of Bhutanese bucolic bliss.
It was a magical day’s walking and we arrived at our first campsite not feeling tired and footsore but rather rejuvenated and revitalised. Warmed by the afternoon sun, it felt great to lie back on the grass and enjoy the enormity of the vista surrounding us. That was until we were set upon by a group of children returning from school. But rather than being upset at our peace being disturbed the children were great company. They were captivated and intrigued by us as we were by them. It was difficult not to be moved by their demure and smiling faces.
I decided to take a photo of them with my polaroid camera. As the flash went off and the photo shot out there was a startled intake of breath. This turned to wide-eyed fascination as the image began to take form before their eyes. And then laughter at the realisation that the image was of one of them. I handed the photo to one boy as a gift. He took it with both hands, studied himself in detail, smiled and handed it back to me. Such is the polite charm of this untouched part of Bhutan. Such moments are rare and special. They are to be treasured, stored up in that memory bank of indelible images
Another morning of sad farewells but as before we had much to look forward to in the day’s trek ahead of us. We began walking through a riot of green vegetation - moist alder, hemlock, flowing fig and giant rhododendron steaming in the morning sun. By late morning we had climbed past the tree line to be confronted by stunning panoramas and views in every direction. In the distance, to the north, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalaya stood defiant and proud. By early afternoon we had reached a pass and it was down into yet another valley, even more secluded than those that had preceded it.
Thus when we stopped to pitch camp later that afternoon, we felt remote and isolated. Invigorated by the beauty of our surrounds and miles from anywhere, I was both surprised and sceptical when Karma told us that we would have some local villagers singing for us later that night. By now I should have learned to trust in Karma and Bhutan.
Later that night under a star-filled sky the singers duly arrived. They were mainly women, all wearing kiras with their hair short and cropped. Their cheeks reddened and cracked from the harsh environment, they stood in a circle around a lantern as we sat by the fire with a group of children, one of whom rested her head in the lap of her elder sister. The women began their nasal, plaintive singing, the sound and tone so alien from anything occidental. The subject matter was more familiar: laments about unrequited love.
As they sung they danced in a large circle, taking four steps in a clockwise direction with their hands wafting gently in rhythm by their sides. Four steps then the slightest skip to change direction, almost like one sets to your partner in Scottish reeling. It was not spectacular, it was not choreographed but it was amazingly special to be a part of that night. And we were very much a part of that night, for as the evening progressed they did not allow us to remain bystanders but insisted that we join in the dancing.
It is perhaps here that I should end, sparing you the reader a day by day account of our trek and the long three days drive back to the relative civilisation of Thimpu, an inevitable tedium that one has to endure in returning form remote places. But I think my experience in the small nondescript town of Mongar is a worthy epilogue of my time in Bhutan. We arrived in Mongar to find that there was no room in the inn, our basic hotel for the night. Rather than being housed in the manger, a reference somewhat lost in a Buddhist culture, I was generously housed in the family shrine.
As I settled down to sleep under the watchful eye of lamas past and present, I felt privileged to be in this room. It was symptomatic of the disarming generosity and trust of the Bhutanese. Yet it was more than that. With the flickering glow of the butter lamps, beautiful thangkas covering the walls and floor-boards polished from years of prostration I finally appreciated that despite the new religion, TV, blaring noisily in the front room, the old religion was very much a part of Bhutan and its people.
That night it all slotted into place. Bhutan is undoubtedly changing;
it is on the cusp. But I also knew that for all its change and slow embrace
of the outside world, Bhutan and its people retain a memorable allure
and appeal. It is still a magical kingdom and one well worth getting