A different world view: A trek through the valleys of Bhutan reveals the kingdom's unspoilt charms

To my right, a man sat with shaven head and full-length earth-red robes; to my left sat a woman, shaved and dressed the same. I look ahead and then to the back of the Airbus A319. Apart from our party of 10, the plane was packed with pilgrims returning from a two-week Buddhist retreat in Kathmandu. We all shared a destination, however: the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. This small nugget of largely forested, mountainous land lies sandwiched between China and India, and recently became democratic.

An hour or so into our journey from Kathmandu we turned left past Everest. The aircraft began a slow descent – wingtips virtually touching the mountainsides – to the country's only airstrip, at Paro. I stepped out into crisp mountain air. This was a world away from the vibrant, polluted, monsoon-drenched Nepalese capital. It felt more like Switzerland, or Austria: calm, unrushed, organised.

A charming young man with Bollywood looks greeted us with a "namaste" and a handshake. He ushered us to a comfortable minibus that drove us slowly along empty roads, past willows and apple trees, to a small lodge in Paro's broad, fertile valley. We were to stay a couple of nights here. Then we would set off on foot north-westwards towards Chomo Lhari, a 7,314m peak on the Tibetan border. We would cross two 4,800m passes and then travel back in a broad horseshoe sweep south and east to the capital, Thimphu.

The trek would take nine days – nine days removed from cars, trucks, computers and mobile phones. But first, a glimpse of Paro's valley. I had heard such a lot about this "land of the thunder dragon". In a sense it is a last Shangri-la with its sacred peaks, ancient monastic fortresses (or dzongs) and men dressed in elegantly belted knee-length dressing gowns called ghos. These garments were almost obligatory, I'd been told, as was the requirement for all new buildings to be created in a traditional style strikingly reminiscent of the Swiss chalet. It had sounded unbelievably picturesque, if a little disquieting for a Western sensibility accustomed to choice.

I walked the length of Paro's main street, lined with pretty wooden shop fronts, with Sangay, my local guide. He was beautifully turned out in a gho with starched white cuffs, long socks and polished shoes. Was this style of clothing obligatory, I asked. "Only for officials and schoolchildren," he replied.

A wander into the town's weekly vegetable market revealed a more eclectic taste in dress – the odd denim jacket and trainers thrown into the mix – and a surprisingly eclectic range of produce, too.

Until the 1960s Bhutan had no roads, no electricity, and no telephones. Goods traded with Tibet went by yak, over high windswept passes. But the Chinese invasion of Tibet put an end to that, as Bhutan closed its northern border. Now trade is solely with India, a few hours' drive to the south. Laid out for sale on the earthen market floor were coconuts, bananas and betel nuts, alongside local yak's cheese and fiddle-top ferns harvested from mountain forest.

That afternoon we climbed a steep zig-zag path through pristine blue pine forest. Tall white streaks of prayer flags fluttered in the breeze. I envied Sangay and his 600,000 compatriots in this beautiful corner of the world.

In little over 40 years, a father- and-son team of kings have, with help from India, lifted the country out of isolationist poverty. Bhutan has adopted many of the benefits of the modern world, such as hydro-electricity, schools and clinics, while hanging onto the culture it treasures most, and without destroying the environment. It was the younger of the two kings, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who coined the phrase "Gross National Happiness". In 2008, in a move that puzzled many of his subjects, he voluntarily abdicated his throne and formed the country's first democratic government. The elections were, according to UN observers, "serene".

Sangay certainly had some very Western concerns: "I worry about my kids watching too much television," he said. "Me too!" I gasped as, high above our heads through the pines, I glimpsed the exquisite red and gold lines of Taktshang "Tiger's Nest" monastery, stuck limpet-like to a cliff some 900m above the valley floor. The Tibetan saint Guru Rinpoche apparently flew to the site of the monastery on the back of a tigress to subdue a local demon. And the people of Bhutan, I was told, were granted access to television and the internet in 1999; the country was the last in the world to go online.

The next morning we spilled out of the minibus and walked off the surfaced road: 10 trekkers, accompanied by two guides, cooks, kitchen crew and horsemen, plus a string of 22 donkeys and mules loaded high with red Duffel bags. The landscape was comfortably domestic at the start. We hiked past a cattle farm, through fields of potatoes and barley, over stone walls and across a suspension bridge, climbing gradually through scattered settlements and into open woodland.

Late in the afternoon, we were presented with a routine that would become familiar. The crew, already at camp, had pitched tents and laid on tea. Supper followed, and an early night. The accommodation was simple to the extreme: no shower, no beds bar a sleeping bag and mat. But the food was scrumptious and the service attentive and warm.

It was the mornings I loved the most. "Six, Seven, Eight!" our guide would remind us: a six o'clock wake-up call and a cup of tea, then breakfast at seven; by eight we had to be packed and ready for the trail. But usually we were awake at dawn, to hear the crew gently stirring beneath their blankets and the pack animals whinnying impatiently as they waited for their breakfast.

We walked through woods of mixed oak, rhododendron and conifer. Below us, the glacial turquoise waters of the Paro Chhu tumbled over rounded rocks and polished pebbles. And then there were the flowers. Dripping from the trees and standing straight-stemmed from the peaty soil were blooms familiar to us all in an English garden: rhododendron, azalea, iris, magnolia, drum-stick primula – and rose.

Then quite suddenly we popped above the tree-line into open pasture. Our camp at Jangothang – above 4,000m, light frost on the ground – is reputedly one of the most spectacular camping places in the entire Himalayas. The ruins of a small fortress sit atop a rock in a side valley. The head of this valley is filled with the vast white mass of the peak of Chomo Lhari. "Astounding and magnificent," George Mallory called it, on his approach march to Everest.

But the views were to get better yet. A climb up the eastern side of the valley revealed, next to Chomo Lhari, the precipitous triangular south face of Jichu Drake. This was first climbed in 1988 by Doug Scott with Victor Saunders and Sharu Prabhu. That was before climbing was banned in Bhutan, where the mountains are held as sacred.

We were in yak territory now – around 4,500m. Shiny black beasts with lustrous tails and delicate feet, they roamed the high hills with their young. In Nepal and Tibet I had seen circles of stones that I knew to be the temporary settlements of yak herders. But here in Bhutan, in early summer, they were occupied: a canvas of yak-tail hair stretched tent-like over the ring of stones, a few essentials stored within. The cry of a young boy carried across the valley from one settlement to another. Here babies are born and bodies cremated under an open sky, a world away from the fast-developing superpowers to the north and south.

We climbed over a barren pass to our highest point that day: Nye La, at 4,850m. At the highest point were tangled strings of coloured prayer flags, sending prayers to the heavens. As the sun hung low in the sky that afternoon, we rested a while on a ridge with a view as beautiful as I've ever seen: hill interlaced behind hill in soft cinnamons fading to golds; and atop a smaller hill, a dzong. From a distance the dzong appeared as two cube-shaped buildings, one a little lower and to the right, mirroring the lie of the land. A camera could never do it; I felt a need to paint, to capture this exquisite marriage of nature and the subtle touch of man.

Of course there is a flip-side to this rural idyll: 110,000 refugees languish in camps in eastern Nepal; and there's a growing problem of youth unemployment. A brief encounter with one of only eight Britons residing in Bhutan, in the capital Thimpu, revealed that many Bhutanese aspired to live in the US. He, on the other hand, chose to live 10 months of the year in Bhutan, and just two in Guildford.

Travel essentials: Bhutan

Getting there

* Rebecca Stephens is leading her second Himalayan Trust UK fundraising trek with World Expeditions (0800 0744 135; worldexpeditions.co.uk), the 14-day Markha Valley & Hemis Festival trek in the Indian Himalaya, between 19 June-2 July. The price of £2,150 per person includes the tour escort, guides, transfers, most meals, accommodation, entrance fees and permits. Flights to Delhi can be arranged by World Expeditions from £450; the Himalayan Trust requires a compulsory donation of at least £250 per person.

* World Expeditions also offers the 12-day Chomolhari Base Camp trek in Bhutan, costing £2,350, joining in Paro.

* There are no direct flights between the UK and Bhutan. Druk Air (drukair.com.bt) offers connections from Delhi, Kolkata and Bangkok.

Red tape

* British passport-holders need a visa for Bhutan. These cost US$20 (£13.40) and must be obtained through a recognised travel agent. *tourism.gov.bt

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?