I was here by personal invitation of the King of Bhutan. In fact, I had met up with him just the previous day at Tashicho Dzong, the same fortress-monastery in Bhutan's capital, Thimphu, where the Prince of Wales was officially welcomed last week. In my case, I was greeted with a royal bearhug, and spent the next few hours catching up on what had happened to Jigme and his country since he became king. He and I went back a long way - to when, aged nine, he was sent to my boarding school in England - Summer Fields in Sussex - and I became his unofficial "minder".
At the end of our warm reunion, Jigme asked me what places I wished to visit. I had already seen plenty of the Paro Valley (where Bhutan's only airstrip is situated) and hiked up to Taktsang Lhakang, as the Prince of Wales recently did. I had also spent some time in Thimphu, visiting monasteries and the great white memorial that Jigme had erected in honour of his father, whose early death meant that my school-friend had to take on the responsibilities of running a country when he was just 17.
It turned out that the King's invitation extended to any corner of his realm, including the troubled southern districts, where the mainly Nepali- speaking people and the royal government have been at loggerheads and numerous atrocities have been reported to Amnesty International. "That's where I'm going on my next tour," said Jigme, who spends much of his time visiting isolated corners of this mountainous kingdom by vehicle, on horseback, or on foot. (Whenever possible, his four queens accompany him in a separate vehicle.)
Sadly I didn't have time for anything so ambitious, so we settled on central Bhutan, with its pine forests and flowering rhododendrons, as well as orchards of apple and peach trees. The next morning, we set out eastwards on the only reliable road that traverses the country. I was provided with a government vehicle and driver, whose skill at negotiating the switch-back mountain roads I soon came to appreciate. I was accompanied by an English-speaking protocol officer, which seemed rather over-the- top until I remembered that I was a guest of His Majesty.
That first day was a hard drive, climbing over three passes above 10,000ft before dropping to the next river valley. The views of the Himalayas were stunning, and at the top of each pass there were forests of prayer flags and chortens of loose stones piled up by other travellers. For most of this eight-hour journey we wound through virgin forest - blue pines giving way to scarlet rhododendrons and evergreen cloud forests as we gained altitude.
Luckily for Bhutan, their king has always been an ardent conservationist. Back in Thimphu, he had told me about confrontations with big logging operators when he was still a teenager. "In Bhutan," he explained, "we have 72.5 per cent forest coverage, which makes us one of the few green spots in the Himalayas." Now, as I stared out at range upon jungle-cloaked range, I could appreciate what he meant.
Whenever we stopped, however, I had to cease being the passive tourist and take on a more active role. I had lunch with the governor of Tongsa, who turned out in the traditional kho (Bhutan's national dress) with his silver sword tucked into the belt and a ceremonial scarf over his shoulder, which was a little formal beside my sweater and climbing boots (from then on I made sure to keep a jacket and tie in the back of the car).
Arriving in Bumthang, I was met by Dasho Pem Dorji, the dzongda or district commissioner of Bumthang. To visit Kurjey, a complex of temples and royal funerary chortens, I put on my jacket and tie, which was just as well, for as we drove up the valley the Dasho was struggling into the white silk scarf denoting his rank. "In the old days you got the red scarf of a high official automatically," he said, "but now you have to earn it."
In this and other ways, Bhutan creeps into the 20th century. Our next stop was Jakar Dzong, the combined fortress and monastery that still serves as the centre of local government. "We keep our computers in a separate building," the dzongda told me. "We decided not to install electricity in the historic dzong because of the fire hazard." The old fortress dates from the 16th century, and while the massive outer walls are constructed of rough-hewn stone, the courtyards inside are surrounded by brightly painted wooden balconies.
I wouldn't have volunteered for the next part of our tour, but Dasho Pem was so obviously proud of the cheese factory (set up with Swiss assistance) and the sheep centre (Australians started up this project by crossing merino and local sheep) that I couldn't refuse.
I visited Tamshing Monastery, which contains the oldest cycle of wall paintings in Bhutan, and a suit of chain-mail which the Buddhist saint Pema Lingpa, who had skills in metallurgy as well as the ability to vanquish demons, is believed to have made. I found out how heavy it was when I was offered the chance to circumambulate the shrine with the saintly armour draped over my shoulder. The Bhutanese believe that to do this helps wash away some of your earthly sins. Really? All I know is that, having carried it, I immediately heard a cat yowling and freed it from under a pile of logs. Perhaps my karma was improving.
It was late afternoon before we reached Tongsa Dzong, the most spectacular dzong in Bhutan. Perching above a narrow ravine, its white and red walls are topped by a jumble of yellow roofs. From a distance it looks like a palace dreamt up by Kurosawa for one of his epic Japanese films; and its role in Bhutanese history is similar to the Shogun's castle, for it was from Tongsa that Jigme's ancestors set out to unify this mountain kingdom. Both his father and grandfather were born here, and it is customary for the heir to the throne to be made Penlop of Tongsa, rather like the investiture of the Prince of Wales.
I was invited to tea by the abbot, but when he led me into a sanctuary filled with statues of protective deities in their most terrifying aspects, I thought this must be a preliminary tour. Not at all. This was afternoon tea. Under the glare of these fierce deities I was asked to be seated on a cushion, and butter tea and biscuits were brought in.
Then I noticed a group of student monks standing by a parapet. What they seemed to be doing was rolling up rice-balls into a cone shape and throwing them into the void. The rice-balls hung in the air, describing long arcs before finally crashing to earth. Some of the more skilful players could keep their projectiles aloft for 30 seconds or more, by which time they had flown half a mile to the far bank of the river gorge a thousand feet below.
Was this magic? I tried my hand and realised that a flick of the wrist would send my rice-ball spinning far through space. We were playing frisbee. Bhutan may be a medieval kingdom locked away in the mountains, but centuries ago the monks of Tongsa Dzong had invented the game which the outside world would not discover until the late 20th century.
BHUTAN fact file
Druk-Air flies to Bhutan from New Delhi, Kathmandu and Calcutta, but tickets are only issued for pre-booked holidays after a Bhutan visa has been issued. For Druk-Air bookings and visas, your tour operator will be responsible (through official channels). KLM has flights to Delhi from pounds 430 return or Calcutta from pounds 452, through Trailfinders (0171 336 3939).
Bhutan limits numbers of tourists to about 5,000 a year, who are charged a minimum of $200 each per day. Entry is usually, but not always, for organised groups. Steppes East (01285 810267) has cultural tours from pounds 3,160 for 15 days, to pounds 3,225 or a 19-day tour, crossing Bhutan and finishing in Assam. Some of the monasteries mentioned are not normally open to visitors, or only when there is a special religious festival.
For further information contact: The Tourism Authority of Bhutan, PO Box 126, GPO Thimphu, Bhutan. They can supply lists of operators and trekking agencies. The Bhutan Tourism Corporation Ltd, PO Box 159, GPO Thimphu, Bhutan, is the state-run operator.
Guide Books: Francoise Pommaret, 'Bhutan', (Odyssey).Reuse content