Bhutan: High life in the Himalayas

By Ben Ross

Bhutan is small and spectacularly isolated, tucked away in the eastern Himalayas between India and China.

From ground level, access to the Tiger's Nest monastery - which dates back to the 15th century and is one of Bhutan's key tourist attractions - seems impossible. Photo / Thinkstock
From ground level, access to the Tiger's Nest monastery - which dates back to the 15th century and is one of Bhutan's key tourist attractions - seems impossible. Photo / Thinkstock

There are, of course, many ways to achieve enlightenment. For Yarab, my Bhutanese guide, the two-hour hike up to Tiger's Nest was one of them.

"The more I go," he called down to me as I sweated up a series of steep steps, "the more I get a benefit for my karma. The present is what you are doing; the future is a gift."

Practising Buddhists have a habit of saying things like that while smiling serenely at you.

Frankly, the only gifts I wanted at that particular point were a more capacious pair of lungs and a set of reupholstered kneecaps.

Yarab paused, waiting for me to catch up. This was the 708th time he'd made this journey, he said. There was no rush. I should take my time.

"BST: Bhutanese Stretchable Time", Yarab called it. And time certainly seems to have stretched and slowed in this peculiar, landlocked country.

Bhutan is small and spectacularly isolated, tucked away in the eastern Himalayas between the vast subcontinent of India and the even mightier swathe of China.

Getting there is hard enough.There is limited land access from northern India, and a maximum of three international flights arrive each day, most being connections from Bangkok and Delhi.

Even landing the plane is difficult. Only eight pilots in the world are licensed to touch down an Airbus A319 in the high-sided Paro valley, home to the country's single international airport.

The few tourists who make the journey - there were only about 21,000 international arrivals last year - are presented with a country that has, deliberately it seems, decided to apply the brakes to much of what the West would regard as progress.

Most of Bhutan's 700,000 inhabitants depend on subsistence farming. Ploughs are pulled by cattle, crops harvested by hand. Terraces of rice step the hillsides and what heavy industry there is has been confined to the southern border with India.

Thimphu, the capital city, is expanding rapidly - and is guilty by Bhutanese standards of a measure of urban sprawl. But it's still a low-tech, lo-fi sort of place: a market here, a jumble of shops there. The major crossroads is governed not by a set of traffic lights, but by a policeman directing matters from a central podium.

Getting around isn't easy either. Despite the arrival of a new domestic airport in the south of the country this month, and plans for two more, most journeys are along single-lane roads which twist round valleys or plummet down mountainsides. Thin metal suspension bridges, hung with prayer flags, are spun across rivers as precarious pedestrian crossings.

Yarab would no doubt have claimed that such inconveniences are merely physical obstacles on a more spiritual journey. But physical obstacles matter. From ground level, access to the Tiger's Nest monastery - which dates back to the 15th century and is one of Bhutan's key tourist attractions - seems impossible.

The temple is a fantastic feat of engineering, squatting white-walled and red-roofed atop an unyielding face of stone, thrust 1000m skywards. On closer inspection, though, our route to the top was revealed as a narrow path within a forest of pine, cleverly hidden from view below.

Yarab and I had joined a loose crocodile of local pilgrims, plus a motley selection of French and Japanese tourists.

The Taktsang monastery is known as Tiger's Nest because in the 8th century a Buddhist master called Guru Padmakara was said to have flown to the spot on the back of a tigress, to subdue evil spirits in western Bhutan. (In a country known as "the Land of the Thunder Dragon" such stories sound only slightly more probable than they might elsewhere.)

However, according to Yarab, Tiger's Nest came into its own as a visitor attraction only after a fire burnt it to the ground in 1998. The destruction, he said, was a sign that the monastery needed renewal, that good would come from change.

In non-Buddhist terms, then, perhaps Joni Mitchell said it best: you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

That the temple has been rebuilt with easier access - handrails for vertigo sufferers, a wider path - has undeniably helped budding pilgrims.

The final stretch, a series of steps that runs in a V-shape past a hurtling waterfall and then upwards to the gates of the monastery itself, is breathlessly intoxicating, a symptom both of the beauty of the setting and the rarefied air at 3100m above sea level.

Inside, gaudy shrines reek of incense, and offerings of money and food lie below gold statues of the guru himself.

When I visited the country, one event was still resonating: this year's Royal Wedding.

In terms of its effect on the national consciousness, the marriage of the fifth king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, to his bride Jetsun Pema on October 13 assumed a significance here that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would no doubt recognise. A huge poster commemorating the happy event is the first thing new arrivals see at Paro airport.

It was the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who asserted in 1972 - as the country began modernising its economy - that progress had to be managed within the boundaries of the country's Buddhist principles.

"Gross National Happiness" was, he said, as important to him as Gross Domestic Product.

Since then, cultural values - including an insistence on wearing Bhutanese national dress in public - have been promoted alongside efforts to maintain sustainable development and to preserve Bhutan's natural environment.

Television and the internet were allowed in the country by royal decree only in 1999; the mobile phone network is still more recent. Smoking is illegal and billboard advertising virtually non-existent.

Bhutan is modernising - it became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, following the fourth king's abdication in 2006 in favour of his son - but it's taking things slowly.

Judging by the esteem in which the current king is held, at least by the people I met, the nation appears to approve. Several wore badges decorated with a photo of the happy couple: he, an Elvis fan, gently bequiffed; she demurely beautiful.

Visitor numbers to the country are limited not only by the difficulty of access, but by another government policy, that of encouraging only what the Tourism Council of Bhutan calls "high-end" tourism.

International travellers must each pay a US$165-200 daily tariff (depending on the season), which covers transport, guides, basic accommodation and a US$65 government "royalty".

Prices are due to rise to to US$200-$250 next year. Luxury accommodation is paid for on top of this - and it doesn't come much more luxurious than a stay at Uma Paro, part of the international COMO Hotels and Resorts group.

In most places, staying in a hotel just five minutes from the airport would not necessarily bode well for your holiday. Happily, Uma Paro's environs are rather attractive. Set high on a hill overlooking the paddy fields of the Paro Valley, the gracious central building is modelled on a traditional Bhutanese design. Built wide and low, the pagoda-like sloping roofs jut over white-washed walls, with ornate detailing in the external woodwork.

Inside there's plenty of the sort of low-lit, rustic-yet-contemporary design you'd expect from a lodge that's aimed as much at well-heeled hikers (surely the only sort there are) as it is at those who prefer just to take it easy.

The rooms in the main building are set around a central courtyard. Although they aren't huge, they are utterly elegant: fresh white linen, dark wooden furniture, hand-painted walls. There's also a sleek spa area in the basement, with a tranquil indoor pool.

The highlight for me was dinner in the Bukhari restaurant, which juts out from the side of the building and is designed round a central stone fireplace, with views from every table. However, if you prefer to keep yourself to yourself, there are eight huge one-bedroom villas that extend up the hillside behind the main building, offering in-room catering and even their own in-villa spa rooms.

The staff-to-guest ratio here is extraordinary, with someone on hand to cater for your every whim, be it a yoga lesson or a Red Panda beer in the bar (an unfiltered brew, with a satisfyingly nutty taste).

If a stay here doesn't enhance your Gross Personal Happiness, then it's possible you have unresolvable existential issues.

Unlocking the secrets of Bhutan means venturing a little further than Uma Paro's hot stone bathhouse. In the past couple of years, mountain biking has taken off here. The king is a fan: His Majesty is often to be spotted pedalling the valley roads.

In 2010 and 2011, a "Tour of the Dragon" race was held, tracing a mountainous path over 267km from Bumthang in the east of the country to Thimphu.

I had no intention of doing anything quite so serious. However, Uma Paro offers guided mountain-biking tours of the surrounding countryside, with the added attraction of a support vehicle on hand in case the strains of the high altitude, or a lack of will power, set in. And December, I was told, is a great time to try the sport - the air is cooler than in spring or autumn, and you avoid the summer monsoon rains. So it seemed appropriate to follow the royal lead and pull on some Lycra.

Yarab once again acted as trailblazer, and a group of half a dozen of us sped down towards the flat valley floor. We slowed as we passed along the streets of Paro - one of the most heavily touristed cities in Bhutan, surrounded by discreet luxury resorts, yet scarcely larger than an Alpine village. Even on the outskirts, Westerners on bikes are unusual enough to merit a smile and a wave from locals.

From there we pottered past the imposing riverside fortress of Rinpung Dzong and across its pretty cantilevered bridge. Whenever we stopped there was the chance to relish another dramatic view of the tumbling, jade-coloured river.

We took a break at a crumbling archery ground in the village of Lango. Bhutan's national sport is practised with fervour throughout the country. Thinley Penjor, a doctor, had travelled over 600km from Mongar in the east to be there.

Dressed in the traditional gho, a knee-length robe tied with a belt, and long socks, he was enjoying a men-only occasion that at times resembled a sedate game of bowls on the village green, and at other points erupted into loud ritual singing and dancing. The modern, carbon-fibre bows looked lethal. The target, 145m away, looked tiny.

The changeover at the end of each round was a tiny bit too casual for my liking, participants strolling round the ground while arrows whistled overhead.

Later, back at Uma Paro, I attempted to shoot with a traditional Bhutanese bamboo bow, on an Olympic-length 70m range. Yarab was bracingly unimpressed, then landed a shot of his own on target with ease.

The next day comprised the mountain stage of my Tour de Bhutan: a two-hour, 18km-long climb upwards on the National Highway from Thimphu (2300m) to Dochu La (3140m).

I was aware of beauty passing me by in the form of deeply gouged valleys of blue pine and oak, and thickets of rhododendron. My focus, however, was on the road - rutted, pockmarked and occasionally thrumming to the noise of diesel-fuelled trucks - and making it intact to the summit.

Thankfully, Dochu La, marked by a hectic jumble of prayer flags and massed ranks of stupas, is the sort of viewpoint that repays effort. Indeed, the white-clad, grown-up Himalayas that loom far to the north are so dramatic that you have to resist the urge to break into applause.

In the next 24 hours there would be many further rewards: the 40km downhill rush towards Punakha, a squiggly line of hairpin bends; exploring the lush valley and tiny villages beyond; a visit to the grand courtyards of Punakha Dzong, the temple at the confluence of two great rivers where the king celebrated his marriage just two months ago.

In the Upper Valley, families threshed crops at the side of the road, dogs yapped, prayer wheels tinkled, and very old men carried improbable loads on their shoulders. Above, the stately Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten glittered, offering divine protection to the country.

Back on that journey to the top of Tiger's Nest, Yarab had told me one more thing.

"The journey is the happiness," he said. "Not the destination."

From a spiritual point of view, he may well be right. For anyone visiting Bhutan, though, the reverse is more likely to be true.

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