Getting into Bhutan

Bhutan is not easy to get into, both physically and bureaucratically. You have to join an organised tour with a recognised tour 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 reduce its impact on the country.

This is very much a country of mountains and valleys and 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 with mixed feelings. In the event it is thrilling rather than frightening, with 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), who have stopped to pick up a trained Bhutanese pilot before they are allowed in.

Modern Day Bhutan

Is it worth it? It’s 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 not as humanitarian as one might expect either. There are workers from other countries, such as India, who seem to have a rough time.

It doesn’t have much to offer other than monasteries and mountains. 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 (Dzongs) and their locations are stunning. Switzerland meets the medieval Orient.

Punakha Dzong

The Punakha Dzong is 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 Dratshang – the head monk

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Monastery (fortress on heaped jewels) is the administrative headquarters of Paro and stands proudly on a hill slope. In addition to the towering walls, this one has splendid wall paintings, and 14 shrines and chapels.

National Museum of Bhutan

Just up the slope from Rinpung Dzong is the National Museum of Bhutan, housed in a circular building that was once the watchtower for the monastery.

Gangteng Dzong

Gangteng Monastery is another must see on the tourist trail in Bhutan; it boasts 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.

Tiger's Nest

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. The sacred site is a relic of historical Tibet; the complex was built up around one of the 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 gold plated pagoda like towers, colourful flags, golden prayer wheels, and cave temple totally rewards 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. 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.

Thimpu and The Royal Palace

The capital of Bhutan is Thimpu, at roughly 2,500 metres above sea level. It's best seen from above where you get great views of the Royal Palaces and the National Assembly. The other main tourist stop is the National Memorial Chorten. With another spectacular view this white stupa is surrounded by golden spires, bells, assembly halls, paintings, and a venerated photograph of the King, Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) in ceremonial attire.

Life in Bhutan

Whilst there is ongoing innovation there is much about the way of life that is unchanged. The Bhutanese wear traditional dress and the villages contain shuttered wooden shops, the streets lined with markets stalls. 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 having 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 and competitions are taking place on the sides of the road as we motor through. The archers wear brightly coloured skirts with a series of swinging tails.

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. Breakfast is cornflakes, rice porridge, tomato sauce, guavas, chips and baked beans. Chilli and cheese are served with most meals.
  • I have a mini bus, a driver, and a guide to myself. They are informative, hardworking and sober. Until the last night when I make the mistake of offering my driver 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. I have to physically restrain him. He doesn’t arrive, with the driver, to return me to the airport for Nepal in the morning.

The Third Eye

Tibet is a long time travel ambition, ever since I had read The Third Eye, by Tuesday Lobsang Rampa as a twelve year old  (Rampa was later revealed to be a  plumber from Devon called Cyril Hoskins) and I was desperate to see the Potala Palace and the home of the Tibetan Buddhists. Tibet has been booked previously yand 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

First the seven big UNESCO tourist highlights: 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

\Then a sunrise visit to Nagarkot to watch the sun rise over Everest - it was too cloudy to see anything

Overland from Kathmandu to Lhasa

A very tough overland journey along the Sunkosi river to the border, over the Friendship Bridge. On the way there the driver wears flip flops and the dirt road runs perilously close to the sheer vertiginous drops to the river, much too far below. 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 rainforest path where we are warned leeches lurk,  I acquire some kind of intestinal upset quite quickly and vomit all the way up the slope

After climbing up the perilous border path, beset by leeches, 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 in the world and snow covered plateaux to Lhasa. The scenery is spectacular and barren and there is little sign of anyone, unless we pass through the few villages. These look like deserted Wild West film sets, except that there are pyre like heaps bedecked with prayer flags and there is the odd blue embroidered door covering or 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. Sometimes we take to the river bed instead. 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.

Nyalam and Tinggi

We overnight at Nyalam and Tinggi. The hotels are basic to say the least. The bath at Nyalam is spattered with red paint. It looks as if Jack the Ripper has been practising in there.

Lhasa, Capital of Tibet

 Lhasa, is the site of my ultimate goal, the hilltop Potala Palace, once the Dalai Lama’s winter home, and the palace 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 itself is the Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s spiritual heart, revered for its golden statue of the young Buddha. Custom dictates that you always go clockwise round the temple, rimmed with market stalls, huge lumps of yak butter, dentist chairs (drills alongside), sewing machines (get your repairs done here) and vendors of 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 Bowel Problem

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. 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 tracks. We have to walk for two days through paddy fields (lots of huge colourful butterflies) and across swaying suspension bridges. Our guide, Mr Ma, leads the way with his parasol umbrella, cheerfully telling us that we have to walk even further than anticipated as there was another slide last night. Lots of villagers dead.

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