Getting into Bhutan

Bhutan is not easy to get into, both physically and bureaucratically. You have to join an organised tour with a recognised local company. And you are required to spend a relatively large number of U.S. dollars each day. This once very secretive and closed kingdom has determined to keep tourism high-end (and therefore lucrative) and control its impact on the environment and the culture.

Bhutan is very much a country of mountains and valleys. Consequently, there is only one accessible international airport, at Paro. Only pilots who are especially trained are allowed to fly in. This has the effect of limiting access to two Bhutanese airlines – Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines – who fly to very few neighbouring countries and Buddha Air, a Nepalese charter airline.

In addition, Boeing have designated this possibly the most challenging landing in the world. Accounts on the internet describe the approach: terrifying, with violent turbulence, as the planes’ wings appear to brush the towering valley slopes. You can imagine that I am approaching the journey from Nepal and India with mixed feelings. In the event, the landing at Paro Airport is thrilling, rather than frightening, preceded by great views of Everest. At dinner in Thimpu (the capital) these stories are confirmed by two pilots, in charge of a private jet, bringing an American business whizz, whose name I recognise. They have had to stop en route, to pick up a trained Bhutanese pilot, before they are allowed in.

Bhutan - in a Nutshell

  • Bhutan is known locally as "Druk Yul" or "Land of the Thunder Dragon". Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with a king (Druk Gyalpo) as the head of state and a prime minister as the head of government. Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism is the state religion.
  • Much of early Bhutanese history is unclear, because most of the records were destroyed when a fire ravaged the ancient capital, Punakha, in 1827. The Drukpa dynasty rose to power in the 16th century, but there have only been designated kings for the last century or so. .
  • Bhutan claims to base its success as a country on Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross Domestic Product. The GNH Index includes areas such as living standards, health, well-being, education, use of time and ecology.

Around Paro

Rinpung Dzong

I'm touring on my own, so have a whole mini bus, a betel chewing driver, Nima, and a guide, Payza to myself. I'm starting in the west of Bhutan, in the historic Paro area, which seems sensible, given that's where I've arrived. First, Rinpung Dzong (Fortress on Heaped Jewels). This is the first, it transpires, of many dzongs. It's the Tibetan word for a monastery which also serves as a fortress. The Bhutanese word, for the same thing, much less commonly applied, is goemba. The administrative headquarters of Paro stands proudly on a hill slope. In addition to the towering walls, it has splendid wall paintings, and 14 shrines and chapels. It's a hive of activity, with youthful monks wandering the astonishingly decorated wooden courtyards.

National Museum of Bhutan

Just up the slope from Rinpung Dzong, is the National Museum of Bhutan, housed in a circular building, which was once the watchtower for the monastery. Museums are a very long established tradition in the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of Bhutan. This one has been adapted to hold over 3,000 works of Bhutanese art, covering more than 1,500 years of Bhutan's cultural heritage. That's Payza, in the painted doorway.

Tiger's Nest Monastery

Starting in the Paro area, however, does mean that Bhutan's piece de resistance, the fabled Tiger's Nest Monastery is next up, very early in the itinerary. The renowned Paro Taktsang Dzong (try saying that fast) is built into the cliffside, above the Paro Valley, around 10,000 feet above sea level.

Legend tells that Padmasambhava, a great Indian master, also known as Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan, was known for subduing demons in Tibet, in the eighth century, was summoned to Bhutan, from Tibet, to vanquish demons who were harassing the people of the Paro Valley. He made the journey, flying on the back of a tigress, found a cave high up in the cliffs above Paro and meditated there for three years, three months, three weeks, thus routing the demons. Some say that the tiger who carried the Guru was actually a manifestation of his disciple and consort, Yeshe Tsogyel.

The Guru, made many visits to the country in the eighth and ninth centuries, (I'm not sure if they were all on the back of a tiger). During those times he hid many sacred treasures, such as images and scriptures (called terma), at various places in Bhutan, 'to avoid their desecration or destruction during troubled times'. They've been retrieved over the years, by 'treasure finders'.

This place became known as "Tiger's Nest" and the fantastical stories grew and grew. Guru Rinpoche, it seems, returned to the site hundreds of years later, reincarnated as Tenzin Rabgye, the man who built the structure which turned the meditation cave into today's temple. A plethora of celestial beings and objects were involved in the process.

Whatever, Guru Rinpoche is regarded in Tibetan Buddhism, as the second Buddha. The monastery has become a sacred place of pilgrimage, known for its amazing energy. A complex was built up around this, one of 13 caves, where Guru Padmasambhava meditated. They are all known as Tiger's Nests and this one is truly breath-taking - in both senses of the word. The gilt pagoda like spires, colourful flags, golden prayer wheels, and cave temple totally reward the effort it takes to get there. The trek up is a real struggle, as the altitude takes its toll. I climb for four hours, with several stops to rest my lungs.

After I've done my own meditation, (I could listen to the chanting for hours), the return journey is a different matter. My guide is astonished when I run down the track in much less than an hour. So am I.

In the Himalayas

I'm already being treated to incredible mountain views. Wandering on the Himalayan slopes, above trickling jade streams, are the Bhutanese takin, also called cattle chamois or gnu goats. As in Tibet, yak are ubiquitous.

Thimpu and The Royal Palace

The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu, at roughly 2,500 metres above sea level. It replaced the ancient capital city of Punakha, in 1961, as part of a modernising movement, by third Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Although increasingly tourist orientated Thimphu's main focus is still on agriculture and livestock. Modernisation included a structure plan which took the city into the early 2000s and oversaw expansion up the long Thimphu Valley. No room for airports in this capital.  

It's best seen from above, where you get great views of the Tashichho Dzong. This Buddhist monastery/fortress, on the northern edge of the city, has traditionally been the seat of the Druk Desi the head of Bhutan's civil government. (The office has been combined with the kingship since the creation of the monarchy in 1907). It dates back to the 1200s, but was rebuilt in traditional style as part of the renovation programme. Alongside is the Royal Dechencholing Palace, the official residence of the King. There are also other new political buildings, including the National Assembly.

Not to mention the world's highest golf course. Up here also, is the National Memorial Chorten. (Chörten is the Tibetan word for stupa.) With another spectacular view, this snowy stupa is surrounded by golden spires, bells, assembly halls, paintings, and a venerated photograph of the King, Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), in ceremonial attire.

Thimphu is the only capital in the world without traffic lights. In fact, when traffic lights were installed the people objected and the city reverted to the use of white-gloved traffic police. Like most capitals though, it has plenty of shops and a string of handicraft centres, with artisans at work making statues, jewellery and carving wood. They all have to be visited. There's also a weekend market, primarily to serve the locals and replete with yak butter.

Gangteng Dzong and the Phobjikha Valley

Venturing now, through long winding mountain passes and icing sugar dusted peaks, east, into central Bhutan, Gangteng Monastery, in the beautiful Phobjikha Valley, is another must see on the tourist trail. Legend here tells that the idea of building a monastery 'on top of the mountains' , was first mooted by the famous fifteenth century treasure seeker Pema Lingpa, He was believed to be an incarnation of Guru Rinpoche, later known as King Terton. This enabled him to discover 108 treasure troves, their locations revealed to him in dreams. Then, he had to establish monasteries, to house the many sacred items, so establishing Buddhism firmly in the country.

Pema Lingpa visited the valley, but didn't build. He predicted that one of his descendants would instead. His grandson Gyalse Pema Thinley took up the challenge, in 1613, and the monastery expanded over time. It has a prime position, above the valley and boasts more amazingly decorated and colourful temples, a famous 11 faced Avalokitesvara Lhakhang Buddhist statue, Shedra’s Assembly Hall, and a (too large for my liking) collection of weapons and armoury. It was completely restored, in the 2000s. This is also the home of the famous cham dance, but not today.

The valley is U shaped and glaciated, almost 3,000 metres high. It's home to two rivers, so is partly marshland habitat, where lanky black necked cranes, from Tibet, migrate for the winter. the cranes circle the monastery three times, when they arrive in November and again, three times, when they depart in March. Phobjikha is not only stunning, but filled with more historical relics. A gorgeously painted gate and a shrine made from a wall of stupas feature. I'm very comfortable, the only tourist in my palace on wheels. My driver, Nima is shown below.

Wangdue Phrodang Dzong

Now, we're returning west, into Wangdue Phrodang, Bhutan's pastureland, with cattle, yaks and horses. Wangdue Phodrang Dzong is famous for its beautiful location, at the confluence of the Punakha and Tsang rivers. The dzong was built by Zabdrung Gnawang Namgyal, the founder of the Bhutanese Kingdom, in 1638. This dzong is definitely a fortress, designed to defend against invasion from the south. Again, the courtyard of Wangdue Phrodang Dzong is full of young monks, engaged in assorted games.

Punakha Dzong

The scenery has been sublime and the monasteries incredible. I'm almost dzonged out. There are plenty more we've passed by and not visited. But, finally, we have to take in the dzong at Punakaha, the old capital, on our way back to Paro. The Punakha Dzong is again, wonderfully picturesquely situated, between two rivers, one male, one female. There's an ancient wooden cantilevered bridge, beautifully decorated. It is the second oldest and second-largest dzong in Bhutan and was the centre of government, until the capital was moved to Thimpu in 1955. It's also the present winter home of the Dratshang - the head monk.

Well, maybe just a brief stop at, close by, the relatively modern Khuruthang Lhakhang dzong, with its smiling chorten. The Lateral Road from Punakha to Thimphu, crosses the Dochu La (pass) at 3,116 metres. It features 108 chortens, built to commemorate the expulsion of Assamese guerrillas.

Life in Modern Day Bhutan

Whilst there is ongoing innovation in Bhutan, there is much about the way of life that is unchanged. The Bhutanese wear traditional dress.

For men, the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt known as the kera. Women wear an ankle-length dress, the kira, which is clipped at the shoulders with two identical brooches called the koma. It's tied at the waist with a kera. Bhutanese law stipulates that all Bhutanese government employees must wear the national dress at work, as must all citizens when visiting schools and other government offices.

Architecture is traditional wattle and daub, no nails. The streets are lined with markets stalls. The village shops have wooden shutters, Many of the houses and monasteries are beautifully decorated, - a phallus often features. Some big, some small, some terrifyingly huge, in various colour schemes, some of them having ribbons tied around them and some also bearing eyes. All of the phalluses are fully erect as this is what frightens off the evil spirits, apparently.

Darts and archery are the national sports. Competitions are taking place by the sides of the road, as we motor through. The archers wear brightly coloured skirts with a series of swinging tails.

My tour crew are informative, hardworking and considerate. Until the last night, when I make the mistake of offering Payza a farewell drink at my hotel. He is not (I assume) able to tolerate alcohol well and he follows me back to my bungalow with lustful intentions. He says his wife doesn't understand him...I have to physically restrain him. Driver, Nima, arrives alone, in the morning, to return me to the airport, for Nepal.

Is Bhutan Worth It?

  • Is Bhutan worth it? It’s hugely picturesque, but probably not as beautiful or diverse as Nepal (though the air is a lot cleaner.)
  • It’s more modern that you might expect, for a country that was sealed off from the world until relatively recently. There is Internet in most places and there is a steady stream of imports (much of it food) coming overland in huge painted trucks from India).
  • Bhutan is the first country in the world with specific constitutional obligations on its people to protect the environment -plastic bags are banned - and so is tobacco
  • It doesn’t have much to offer other than monasteries and mountains. (Bhutan has the world’s highest unclimbed peak, Gangkhar Puensum, a mountain so sacred by the Bhutanese that the government has banned mountaineering here). However, it is fascinating and the atmosphere in the monasteries, the chanting and rhythmic percussion draws you in and calms the soul. It’s difficult to tear oneself away.
  • The most visited monasteries and their locations are stunning. Switzerland meets the medieval Orient.

The Downsides of Bhutan

  • When you're here it's all very controlled. There are checkpoints everywhere.
  • There are an awful lot of handicraft shops.
  • The food is a little strange to the western palate. Breakfast is cornflakes, rice porridge, tomato sauce, guavas, chips and baked beans. Chilli and cheese are served with most meals.
  • Bhutan is not as humanitarian as one might expect. There are workers from other countries, such as India, who seem to have a rough time.

The Third Eye

Tibet is a long time travel ambition, ever since I had read The Third Eye, by Tibetan monk, Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, as a twelve year old.  (Rampa was later revealed to be a  plumber from Devon called Cyril Hoskins.) I was desperate to see the Potala Palace and the home of the Tibetan Buddhists. Tibet has been booked previously and cancelled, due to landslides on the route (I should have taken more note). The border has been closed several times over recent years, by China.

This is my first taste of an ‘adventure tour’. It takes adventurous exploration to the limit of the definition. (In hindsight I’m surprised I ever signed up for ‘off the beaten track’ travel again.)

Kathmandu, Nepal

We start in Kathmandu. The word is hardly less evocative than Tibet. The Road to Kathmandu, the ultimate hippy destination. The capital of Nepal sprawls across the bowl shaped Kathmandu Valley, at a slightly breathy altitude of 1,400 metres. This is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world, founded in the second century. It's the gateway to the fabulous Himalayas, peeping over the rooftops.

And the architecture is a fascinating mix. The home of the Nepalese Royal family, (palaces and mansions) and a centre for Hindu and Buddhist rituals and festivities (temples, stupas and shrines galore). There are three cities in the Kathmandu Valley, all ancient. So, we set out to explore Patan and Bhaktapur, as well as Kathmandu. As far as UNESCO are concerned the seven big tourist highlights are: the Durbar Squares of Hanuman Dhoka (Kathmandu), Patan and Bhaktapur, the Buddhist stupas of Swayambhu and Bauddhanath and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan. It's dusty and fascinating.

We're staying in backpacker Thamel district. Lines of cheap hotels, little restaurants and shops selling tours. I'm sharing with Jenny, who insists on perusing every item in every shop.

When we're done, a very early sunrise visit to Nagarkot, to watch the sun rise over Mount Everest. (Read more about Kathmandu here)

Kathmandu to the Border of Tibet

Now, the trip starts in earnest. A very tough overland journey, along the Sunkosi river to the border with Tibet, over the Friendship Bridge. The driver wears flip flops and the dirt road runs perilously close to the sheer vertiginous drops to the river. We overnight in a home stay. Chickens scrabbling round my feet and the toilet is the river, or a communal stone wall urinal, where the local children gather to watch the white folk go.

We scrabble up a steep and sticky rainforest path, where we are warned leeches lurk, Those clambering down are covered in rain gear, hoods pulled down, to keep them off.  The guides flourish lighters - just in case. I've already acquired some kind of intestinal upset and vomit all the way up the slope.

The Border of Tibet to Lhasa

We are met at the top of the slope by a Mitsubishi minibus. This lurches its way over some of the highest bleakest mountain passes and snow covered plateaux in the world, to Lhasa. the capital of Tibet. The scenery is spectacular and barren and there is little sign of anyone, except when we pass through the few villages. These look like deserted Wild West film sets, if you overlook the pyre like heaps, bedecked with prayer flags. not to mention, the odd blue embroidered door covering or yurt like tent. Yaks are wandering. In fact yak is everywhere. (No sign of the Abominable Snowman though.) The stink of yak butter fills the air too much of the time, especially in the monasteries, where it is burned in the lamps.

The road is barely paved and covered in boulders. On occasion, we take to the river bed instead. The rivers cut through the meadowland, shallow, and fast-flowing sheets of melted snow. The bus breaks down frequently. When it does, the drivers disappear underneath, brandishing spanners and more Tibetans appear miraculously and help to get it on its way again. If our bus runs smoothly, the road is blocked by other buses or trucks that have broken down, often tipping ominously to one side.

Tibet

Tibet is called the "Roof of the World", with good reason. The Tibetan Plateau, the highest region in the world, stands over three miles above sea level. It is surrounded by imposing mountain ranges, which harbour the world's two highest summits, Mount Everest (shared with Nepal) and K2 (in Pakistan). There is still snow on the ground, in high summer, on the highest passes.

Since 1951, the entire plateau has been under the administration of the People's Republic of China, a major portion in the Tibet Autonomous Region, and other portions in the Qinghai and Sichuan provinces. Considerable numbers of Han Chinese and Hui people have been encouraged to settle here, in the traditional homeland of the Tibetan people.

The Tibetan Empire emerged in the seventh century. and at its height extended far beyond the Tibetan Plateau, from Central Asian's Tarim Basin and the Pamirs in the west, to Yunnan and Bengal in the southeast. But it eventually fragmented into different territories with western and central areas being ruled from Lhasa, the capital. Their neighbours, first the Mongols and then the Chinese, exerted greater and lesser control over the centuries, mostly allowing autonomy.

Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama

Famously, as I've already mentioned, the dominant religion in Tibet is Tibetan Buddhism, influencing the art, music, and festivals of the region. The Tibetans' spiritual and political leader from 1642, was called the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama comes from the Gelug or "Yellow Hat" school of Tibetan Buddhism and is considered to be the successor in a line of leaders, known as tulkus, who are incarnations of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. That's just the formal heritage. The informal line is said to be traced right back to a brahmin boy, alive at the time of Buddha. The Dalai Lamas have had to escape the country on more than one occasion (once because of a British invasion - part of The Great Game), before the Chinese took over completely. The current Dalai Lama lives as a refugee, in India.

Tingri

Our initial overnight is at Tingri. It's a town of just over 500 people, often used as a transition point to an Everest Basecamp. From here, if the weather is clear enough, you can see Mount Everest in the distance. I'm persuaded I can make it out, a speck in the distance. On a very good day, I'm told, you can see another three of the six highest peaks in the world: Mount Lhotse, Mount Makalu, and Cho Oyu.

The hotel is basic to say the least. The bath is spattered with red paint. It looks as if Jack the Ripper has been practising in there

Sakya Monastery

On the road to Shigatse, Sakya (Pale Earth) Monastery was founded in 1073. For a time, it was the seat of power in Tibet, during the Mongol overlordship. It started life as a cave, evolving into complex buildings and a library. These have been destroyed and renovated several times. There's a huge main hall, but very few monks. Most were forced to leave

Shigatse

Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet. The Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama, is the traditional monastic seat of the Panchen Lama. He is the second most important of the Yellow Hat Buddhists, whose job it is to find the successor to the Dalai Lama. There's some controversy about the current post holder. The eleventh Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, six years old, was recognized by the 14th Dalai Lama on 14 May 1995. Three days later, he was kidnapped by the Chinese government and his family was taken into custody. The Chinese government instead named Gyaincain Norbu as the Panchen Lama. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has never been seen in public again.

Gyantse

Shigatse (at 3900 metres) dipping south and then east to Gyantse. Gyantse was historically Tibet's third largest city (after Lhasa and Shigatse). It's since been eclipsed by numerous others. Gyantse is the ultimate, bleak wild west experience. The restored dzong (or fort) from the late fourteenth century, towers overhead. Gyantse was on the wrong end of the above mentioned British incursion in 1904. Francis Younghusband's force was tasked with settling disputes over the Sikkim-Tibet border. However, Younghusband more than exceeded his instructions from London, and invaded Tibet instead.

The British were well organised and armed and the monks equipped with little more than their charms. Numbers of Tibetan dead vary wildly depend on who is reporting, but there seem to have been no more than five British casualties. The invasion annoyed the Chinese and embarrassed the British who were trying to negotiate trade deals with the Qing rulers. So, Younghusband's Treaty of Lhasa a surrender document, was repudiated. Nevertheless, a British garrison remained at Gyantse fort for the first half of the twentieth century.

The other must see in Gyantse is the magnificent tiered Kumbum ( '100,000 images') in the grounds of the Palcho Monastery. (The moanstery has Britsih bullet holes in the walls.) The largest chörten (stupa) in Tibet was commissioned by a Gyantse prince in 1427. It contains 77 chapels over six floors, and is illustrated with over 10,000 murals (not quite 100,00 but impressive enough), which have survived intact. The Chinese have destroyed most of the paintings in the Tibetan monasteries.

The Holy Lake of Tibet

The last leg of our overland journey north and east, from Gyantse to Lhasa. On the way, we drive alongside Yamdrok-tso (4400 metres), the Holy Lake. In the distance, spectacular views of the Holy Mount Nyenchen Khangsar, (7191 metres) the highest mountain near Lhasa, before we pop over the Gampala Pass (4790 metres). The statistics are astonishing. I really am on top of the world.

Lhasa, Capital of Tibet

 Lhasa (Place of Gods), the capital of Tibet, is the site of my ultimate goal. The hilltop Potala Palace, dzong (fortress) once the Dalai Lama’s winter home (since the seventh century), dominates the view. It’s immense and does not disappoint. The  monasteries are fascinating, with their enigmatic red cloaked monks and the drumming and chanting hypnotically magnetic. The hub of Lhasa is the Jokhang Temple, also from the seventh century. Tibet’s spiritual heart is revered for its golden statue of the young Buddha. Custom dictates that you always do kora (go clockwise round the temple), on the narrow lanes of Barkhor Street. It's rimmed with open air market stalls, huge lumps of yak butter, dentist chairs (drills alongside), sewing machines (get your repairs done here) and beautifully patterned prayer wheels.

The dark haired, tanned Tibetans clad in leather and yak fur, are friendly. The PLA, less so, staring on every corner, guns at the ready, some of them mincing in strange high heeled boots. They make a point of walking round in the opposite direction. In Lhasa we are accommodated in the Holiday Inn. Suffice it to say it is not like any other Holiday Inn I have ever encountered. The new English manager has just arrived. He’s tearing his hair out.

A Small Problem in Tibet

The other main sights of Lhasa are the Dalai Lama's Summer (Norbulingka Palace), and the Sera and Drepung Monasteries. But I'm now too distracted to take lot of notice when we visit these. I was already vomiting when I scrambled over the border. Whatever bug I have acquired has not left me. Everything I eat is going straight through and I’m tired and nauseous, to the point where I can’t join in all the monastery visits. I can’t even lift up my fork to eat. The scent of yak butter permeating the air doesn’t help. Neither does the altitude. Altitude tablets make you even more dehydrated.

Eventually, the group dispatch me to the Chinese hospital in a taxi, with guide Mr Ma to interpret. I’m sent to a toilet to give a sample. It’s an open sluice with huge plate glass windows. I have to deposit it in an open card tub and then follow Mr Ma twice round the hospital holding my collection out in front of me, until we finally reach the correct open window. The doctor, delivers the verdict via my interpreter: I have a bowel problem. They want to put me on a drip. Having inspected the facilities I decline the offer. The little brown packets of pills they dispense are, however, efficacious.

Tibetan Sky Burial

A couple of days later, I’m beginning to feel better, though I sleep most of the return journey on the back seat of the bus.’ Thank you for sending me to hospital,’ I say to the group, touched by their caring attitude.’ ‘Well, actually,’ they reply. ‘You were getting so bad, we were worried you might not make it. We heard that a German tourist died here last week of the same thing. They gave her a traditional sky burial. Laid out on the mountain for the vultures. And all the rest of the tour group were made to watch for insurance purposes. We didn’t want to do that’.

Return to Kathmandu

On the return journey, landslides have blocked the already fragile tracks. We have to walk for two days through paddy fields ( huge colourful butterflies) and across swaying suspension bridges. Our guide, Mr Ma, leads the way, holding his parasol umbrella aloft, cheerfully explaining that we have to walk even further than anticipated, as there was another slide last night. 'Lots of villagers dead.'

(And read more about China here.)

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