Another side to Bhutan, and six things to do in the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom – land of archers in knee socks, ‘solar dogs’, and genuine warmth
While planning the route for a 200km mountain ultra-marathon, Pavel Toropov gets first-hand experience of life in Bhutan, where roads are few and far between, monks are demons at soccer, and Chinese tourists still a minority
Bhutan, or the Kingdom of Thunder Dragon, is nestled between China and India. The size of Switzerland, but home to just 800,000 people, the country jealously guards its nature and traditions, as well as the state religion – Buddhism – against outside influence.
Every visitor to the country must pay a US$250 fee and travel along a prearranged itinerary.
My Bhutan trip was different – while planning a route for a 200km mountain ultra-marathon, I got to experience a different side to Bhutan, working side by side with Bhutanese, and staying overnight with them in farmhouses and monasteries.
Reading a local newspaper always tells you a lot about a country. Headlines in the English-language Kuensel, given out on flights to Bhutan, suggest that the place is small, mysterious, but striving for self-improvement. Headlines I read included, “Graduates start online vegetable shopping”, and “All gewogs in the country connected with internet”, while a cartoon caption reading “Pedal past period prejudice!” aimed at breaking stereotypes of menstruation.
While I was wondering what the gewogs would do with their new internet connections (I imagined these to be solitary, troll-like giants, but gewog turned out to be an administrative unit), the plane started its descent into Paro airport.
The take-off and landing at Paro airport are one of the official attractions of a visit here. On the approach, the plane dives into a mountain valley, following its bends and turns. Tourist information tells you that just 10 pilots in the world are qualified for this aerobatic feat.
Upon landing you immediately notice what an attractive country Bhutan is. Diminutive towns, hemmed in by mountains, consist of small buildings so ornate they look like theatre decorations. There are no outward signs of poverty, things are ordered and well maintained. Many people have drawn comparisons with Switzerland, and that country is seen as a model for Bhutan’s development.
Bhutan has a long way to go yet to becoming a world financial centre, but it has been winning international praise for its environment-first development strategy. Environmental protection is even written into Bhutan’s constitution, which states: “It is a fundamental duty of every citizen to contribute to the protection of the natural environment.”
There is a lot to protect – 60 per cent of the country is set aside for forests, and tigers are spotted regularly just above Thimphu, the capital, as my young assistants, both named Sonnam (as is a sizeable part of the male Bhutanese population) repeatedly warned me.
Our journey through Bhutan’s forests, monasteries and mountains was not easy. We hiked the entire 200km race course to make sure it was transitable – that the trails and paths were not blocked by landslides or floods.
The starting point was the 400-year old Punakha Dzong in the west of Bhutan. Dzongs – the white, ochre and gold fortress-monasteries are the bread and butter of any tourist itinerary to the country.
Dzongs also attract packs of friendly stray dogs. Called “solar dogs” in Bhutan due to their habit of sleeping in the sun during the day and rampaging around at night, they are confident and well-fed – in this Buddhist country no life is taken. Livestock is taken to India to be slaughtered.
India is also the source of the bulk of tourists to Bhutan. The Indians here far outnumber even the Chinese visitors, in part due to the nervousness with which Bhutan eyes its northern neighbour. Chinese citizens are banned from going anywhere near the China-Bhutan border, which disqualifies the Chinese from Bhutan’s classic Himalayan treks.
Hiking from Punakha Dzong up to the Chorten Ningbo monastery where we would spend the night, we crossed an archery ground. Archery is a national sport here: Bhutanese men in traditional clothes – a knee-long robe known as gho and knee-high socks – were strutting around like kilted Himalayan Scotsmen, shouldering hi-tech compound bows.
Travelling in Bhutan on foot means hiking from one valley, with its lush terraced fields and ornate, blocky houses, up and across a thickly forested mountain massif, and repeating the procedure until you get to your destination – a village in a valley or the monastery higher up. Roads are few and far between, and the locals commute on narrow, ancient paths through primeval Himalayan forest.
The driver of an ox caravan that we got stuck behind laughed at our concerns of stumbling across a tiger: “Yes, there are tigers here, but you will not see any.”
However, our trail, connecting Punakha Valley with Kabisa Valley, was a trench in the thicket of forest on each side, and the gigantic male ox there would gore any stranger, he warned us.
Having eventually descended into Kabisa, we were put up for the night at the big house of a local man who had four wives and 12 children. Polygamy is legal in Bhutan, and our host had long reached the official four-wife limit. Polyandry, being married to multiple husbands, is also apparently still practised in remote areas.
We learn that the ubiquitous depictions of penises on the walls of buildings have no sexual meaning; their function is to drive away the evil eye, and every tourist souvenir shop is well stocked with carved wooden phalluses.
The Bhutanese are courteous, friendly and open, and this applies equally to the lay people as to the clergy. In Phajoding monastery, our abode in the mountains above the capital Thimphu, the head lama, Namgay Tenzin, welcomed us back.
Lama Namgay takes in boys as young as five, many being orphans, to give them a home and an education at Phajoding. The young monks are fanatical about soccer, and their pitch behind the monastery is carefully maintained. So good is the Phajoding monk team that we dubbed them Real Phajoding. Every year they play the team of runners and race staff and every year they massacre us.
The end point of our journey was Bhutan’s iconic site – the Tiger’s Nest, or Paro Takstang, monastery, glued to a sheer cliff face nine hundred metres above Paro Valley. This is a place of immense spiritual importance to any Buddhist – in the 8th century, Padmasabhava, often called the Second Buddha, meditated in a cave here.
Sonnams and myself did not have much time for meditation during our dash across Bhutan, sleeping for just three or four hours a night, but that left us almost 20 hours a day to absorb this unique, beautiful and genuinely spiritual country – which also happens to be a mountain runner’s dream.
Six things to do in Bhutan
1. Tiger’s Nest monastery – This is Bhutan’s most iconic spiritual site. The long hike up is better done very early to avoid the crowds.
2. Venture to the East – “This is the unexplored, authentic Bhutan. I recommend a road trip from Paro to the town of Mongar Tashigang.” says Tashi Gyeltshen, owner of Adventure Bhutan travel agency.
3. A Himalayan trek – Gyeltshen’s pick is the eight-day Yakdsa Trek.
4. Meditation retreats – By default, all the produce you eat at your retreat is organic, as all the locally grown vegetables and fruit are, by law. However, meditation retreats are not widely offered, but can be booked through the Adventure Trekking Club on its website: https://adventurebhutan.com/
5. A trip down south – This part of Bhutan is home to elephants and rhinos. Royal Manas National Park is the main destination for multi-day rafting trips and jungle safaris.
6. A marathon in the mountains – Registration has already opened for next year’s Bhutan – The Last Secret ultra-marathon, held every May. The race is a great way to have a “behind the scenes” experience of Bhutan.
Getting there: Druk Air, Bhutan’s national airline flies directly to Paro from Kathmandu, Bangkok, Delhi and Singapore. You can book on its website: www.drukair.com.bt
One thing to remember though – the procedure is to get your trip fixed via a travel agent first. You will need permits for everything and only then can you book flights: you cannot just turn up in Bhutan. Every visitor to Bhutan must also pay a US$250 daily fee, which includes a 3-star hotel, guide, vehicle, food and driver.