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
* 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.
* 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
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