6 mins

Kingdom of heaven: exploring western Bhutan

Elusive snow leopards and a traditional archery contest are the highlights of the Jhomolhari trek in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan

Chorten and prayer flags (Jean-Marie Hullot)

If there is one time in your life when you should damn-well insist on getting a window seat, make it the flight into Paro airport in Bhutan.

As you watch the foothills of India crumple up into the blue, wedding-cake peaks of the Himalaya, your mouth starts to curl. By the time the plane is swooping over glaciers the size of Wiltshire and steep valleys where you can’t see the bottom, your face has morphed into one giant smile, pressed flat against the glass. 

But it’s when the plane starts its descent that it all gets a bit magical.

The pilot flicks a switch (presumably labelled ‘atmosphere overload’) and the cabin fills with music. Not that plinky-plonky elevator drivel that gets you bolting for the emergency exits. No, a solemn Himalayan pipe that warbles its haunting melody as the plane weaves through narrow green valleys, skims the top of razor-sharp ridges, and then dips down over rice paddies and weeping willows to come to a skidding halt on the only strip of land in the entire kingdom that is flat enough to accommodate a runway. 

And that’s when you get the first inklings of a thought that will occur to you again and again throughout your stay in Bhutan: this isn’t just the Himalaya – this is the first-class, platinum-encrusted, executive lounge of the Himalaya.

Bhutan has teetered at the top of my travel wishlist for years. How can you not be curious about a place cut off from the world until the 1960s; whose citizens wear dressing gowns and Argyll socks every day by law; where the country’s only set of traffic lights were deemed too impersonal and quickly replaced by a policeman with sparkling white gloves and balletic hand gestures? But it’s more than the quirky customs – it’s the astonishing way that Bhutan is now carefully embracing the modern world while still doing everything in its power to preserve its culture and, more importantly, its pristine mountain ecosystem.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s visionary ruler known for his development of ‘Gross National Happiness’, has repeatedly put Bhutan’s environmental sustainability before economic gain. 

Vast swathes of the kingdom are designated national parks. New industry and development projects are frequently denied if they don’t meet strict criteria. And then there’s the Bhutanese approach to tourism. It might be Bhutan’s second-largest industry (after hydroelectric power) but tourism is still a minuscule operation compared to other countries.

Although there is no official limit on the number of foreigners allowed in each year, the figure is kept to a manageable level by the small number of flights and hotel beds available, plus the all-important US$200-a-day tourist tariff imposed by the government. A world away from the apple-pie trails of Nepal, Bhutan openly refuses to be part of the backpacker circuit by not permitting independent travel. Elitist? Maybe. But when you consider what’s at stake, who can blame them?

Which is precisely what occurred to me two days after landing as I trekked towards Jigme Dorji National Park. On one side of the track, an abstract jigsaw of terraced rice paddies rose up the hillside to meet vertiginous pine forests. On the other tumbled a turquoise river, and beyond, a cluster of wooden buildings that looked like something out of the Brothers Grimm – gingerbread-style houses with overhanging roofs covered in scarlet chillies drying in the sun, and ornate windows surrounded with paintings of dragons and, surprisingly, giant penises to ward off evil spirits. If ever a place deserved to be handled with kid gloves, this has to be it. 

And I hadn’t even got to the best bits. Ahead of me lay one of Bhutan’s classic treks – the nine-day Jhomolhari route that winds through whispering forests, skirts reverently around sacred mountains and ventures deep into remote yak country.

The trek begins

I was joined by 11 jolly Australian trekkers, a cook, three camp staff, three horsemen and no fewer than 22 horses. Leading our motley crew was a formidable double-act: Payza, the spiritual young Bhutanese guide who would sing to us in the evenings and tell tales of flying tigers and divine madmen; and Sorrel, a reluctant celebrity in Australia thanks to her appearances on TV travel programmes, who trekked solo across Tibet when she was just 23, is “mates” with the Dalai Lama, and has traversed the entire length of the Himalaya.

Walking through Bhutan with Sorrel was like watching a film with someone who’s seen it before and is trying not to blurt out when all the good bits are coming. “You just wait,” she would say to me, rubbing her hands together excitedly and nodding towards the track in front of us. “Boy, we’re in for a treat!”

With that sort of build-up, the potential for anti-climax was high, but the next morning I unzipped my tent to reveal one of those crisp days that gets your senses jangling. Unsure of where to look first, my eyes ricocheted from a snowy peak to a dewy pine forest to an al fresco breakfast table bearing an unlikely combination of porridge, jam and chips. Just metres away the river roared relentlessly, a deafening rush that meant I had to bellow across the table for someone to pass the sugar. 

For the next few days, the river never left us as we followed it up the valley through forests that could give New England a run for its money. In fact Bhutan is like New England, but turned on a 90° angle. From the scented pine trees on the lower slopes, we entered brooding oak forests where the ancient branches were dripping in velvety green moss. Above us cypress, spruce, juniper and birch scampered up the mountainside clinging improbably to sheer ridges where their feathery branches caught the afternoon sun and lined the mountains with tinsel. 

“This is what makes Bhutan so different,” said Sorrel as we stood on a steep hill looking down into a gorge of golden larches that looked like someone had just doused it with petrol and tossed in a match. “You just don’t get trees like this in the rest of the Himalaya. Deforestation has pretty much decimated everywhere else.” It’s something the Bhutanese are adamant that they will avoid: 72% of their country is covered with forest, and the king has decreed that this is never, ever to fall below 60%. 

Beyond the trees, we climbed ever higher through a landscape that looked more and more like the highlands of Scotland – bleak and beautiful, with that teeth-clenching glacial wind that hurtles straight through you, laughing in the face of Gore-Tex. Trumpet gentian and edelweiss huddled close together as we tramped past, while hardy gorse bushes stood their ground in defiance. 

Of yaks & leopards

But the prize for elemental apathy goes to the yak – the most hardened, or perhaps stupid, animal alive. The easiest way to spot a yak is to scan the horizon for the most inhospitable, wind-buffeted piece of scree you can find. Without fail a yak will be standing there, its long, shaggy fur whirling around it wildly as it stares nonchalantly across the valley, lost in its own thoughts, perhaps dreaming of a beach in the Maldives. 

“They like open spaces,” explained Payza. “That way snow leopards can’t sneak up on them.” At the mere mention of snow leopards we forgot about yaks. This was far more exciting. There’s something about being in snow leopard country that’s like buying a lottery ticket. You know you’re never going to see one, but you can’t help but look anyway. I weighed up my snow leopard odds.

There are estimated to be 150 snow leopards in Jigme Dorji National Park but they all have a serious case of agoraphobia. Payza admitted he had never seen one but a friend of a friend’s brother’s girlfriend’s yak-cheese supplier’s uncle had seen one once. Or at least thought he had. Who was I kidding? I had as much chance of seeing a snow leopard as that yak did of getting to the Maldives, but for the rest of the trek I scanned the mountains as I walked, hoping for a flash of a bushy tail disappearing behind a rock.  

I was only diverted from my fervent snow leopard hunt by Jhomolhari. Jhomolhari is one of those mountains that scares you. It’s not sharp and dainty like the Matterhorn, or smooth, predictable and Fuji-esque. It’s a hulking colossus of brooding cliffs and crisp white domes with a chaotic glacier that tumbles down the valley in a Cubist jumble of blue, grey and black. Our camp at Jangothang cowered in its shadow among a flotilla of prayer flags and a ruined fortress. 

If I’d thought it couldn’t get any more dramatic, I was proved wrong when we were woken the next morning by Sorrel and Payza shouting the one word you really don’t want to hear when you’re camped at the foot of a monstrous mountain. “Avalanche!” they yelled as we struggled out of our sleeping bags to see the right half of Jhomolhari disappear in a mushroom cloud of snow. “Wow… that was a biggie,” said Sorrel casually, blowing into her cup of tea as the fine spindrift settled. “The yaks will be choking on that one.” I returned ashen-faced to my tent. 

The white stuff

Snow was something I was going to have to get used to though. After leaving Jangothang, the weather took a turn for the worse. Simultaneously wearing everything on ‘The List’ (including those borderline items such as spare gloves and gaiters that you never think you’ll actually use) we crunched through frozen streams, blinked briefly up at icy waterfalls and then buried our faces back in our fleeces to continue the slow plod that zigzagged up and over Nyile La, and down into Lingzhi valley. It was as we were sauntering through a birch forest where the silvery bark curled off the trunks like old wallpaper that the first light flakes of snow began to fall. 

It continued all that evening as we huddled in the mess tent eating rice and chillies, and well into the night so that when we opened our tents the next morning we were in a different Bhutan. Suddenly the rusty oranges and tans of the previous days were hidden and we set off through a frosted white world where the only colours we saw were the russet-coloured tails of a couple of flirty redstarts and the occasional scarlet bush dangling with spindly icicles. “Even the yak pats look pretty,” commented fellow-trekker Stan. And he was right – covered lightly in snow they looked like cinnamon-swirl buns dusted with icing sugar. 

The snow stayed with us for the next three days, a constant accompaniment to our journey that was both friend and foe. Swirling in mythic proportions around our tiny party snaking up the steep pass of Yeli La, it stung our cheeks and slowed us to a barely perceptible shuffle. Then again, it also provided a vast white canvas on which the two kitchen boys who had gone on ahead drew smiley faces and good-luck penises next to the trail for encouragement, making us giggle beneath our Polartec.

Over the other side of the pass the horizontal blizzard calmed into a more benevolent shower, where giant flakes fell silently to the ground like feathers. It was rather like walking through a Christmas card, albeit one with slushy paths and giant muddy puddles. 

Is that a snow leopard?

I like to think it was the snow that brought me just that little bit closer to my snow leopard. Maybe the freak weather conditions confused him a bit; perhaps he thought that no one would be mad enough to be trekking in such deep powder and he let his guard down? 

Before you get too wracked with jealousy, I’d better point out now that I didn’t actually see him – but I came oh, so close. As we headed down into a steep gorge the next day, I heard shouts from Payza ahead. Slumped on the path in a pool of blood lay a yak calf, half-eaten, its belly ripped open and a poignant frosting of snow settling on its innards. 

“This could only be the work of a snow leopard,” said Payza as we crowded round. He placed his hand on the unfortunate creature’s neck. “It’s still warm!” he added excitedly. 

That was all the information I needed before I was standing high on a rock and squinting up at the pale yellow cliffs that towered over us, seriously convinced that somewhere on a steep ledge I would see a snow leopard staring back at me. Of course, he was probably halfway to Tibet by then. But I prefer to think that he was hiding in one of the caves above, slyly peering out every so often until we had long disappeared into the gorge so he could go back for seconds. 

If our timing hadn’t been spot-on for the snow leopard, it had all the perfection of a Swiss watch when we arrived at the small village of Barshong. Tired from a day sliding through a quagmire of mud, we approached that night’s camp to the sound of singing and cheering.

Having seen no one for days save one or two trekking groups at Jangothang and the odd wandering yak-herder, I couldn’t help thinking that I was hallucinating – in a remote, snow-clad valley of Bhutan, it sounded suspiciously like there was a bit of a knees-up going on over the next hill. It was, in fact, an archery tournament (which then turned into a knees-up) – a tournament that takes place in Barshong once every two years – and our tents were conveniently set up just below the target. 

Bows and arrows Bhutan style

Archery is Bhutan’s national sport and its passion. Up on a hill, a multi-coloured throng of men in their patterned ghos (traditional mens’ dress) took it in turns to shoot arrows at a tiny sliver of a target positioned a whopping 140m away. Around them, residents of the neighbouring village heckled and jeered, peering across the meadow to see how well they did. Further up on the hillside, looking down on the proceedings, were cheerleaders – groups of women singing and dancing in circles in their finest silk outfits.

Considering the scant number of tourists passing through these parts, I wondered how they would feel about us gatecrashing their event, but they seemed genuinely pleased to see us and before long we were cheering and clapping with them as the arrows sped past. Each time someone managed to hit the target, the valley echoed with cheers and two men in orange started skipping and leaping through the mud around the victorious arrow like slow-motion Morris dancers, but without the hankies. 

“What are they saying?”

I asked Payza as a barrage of heckles burst out from the men while one unfortunate archer tried to concentrate. “Well…” Payza said before pausing solemnly. “They’ve just said that he has a very long nose.” I couldn’t help but smile. As an insult it would hardly stand muster on England’s rowdy football terraces, but to me it spoke volumes. 

As I lay in my tent that night to the sound of Barshong celebrating, I decided that, along with its relentless beauty, there is an innocence to Bhutan that needs to be preserved.

Which is not to say that they are unprepared or naïve about the future. Far from it. In a brave bid to move his country into the 21st century, the King has announced that in 2008 he will relinquish absolute authority in favour of a written constitution and parliamentary democracy.

No one can predict what will happen then, but when it comes to issues of conservation and tourism, Bhutan seems to be one step ahead of the game, all too aware of what is at stake and where it could all go horribly wrong. I can only wish them luck.

The author travelled with World Expeditions which offers trips to Bhutan from 11 to 27 days

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