I had always dreamt of going to Bhutan. Known locally as “Land of the Thunder Dragon” it is landlocked by mighty peaks of the eastern Himalayas and bordered by India and China. Almost completely cut off for centuries, it has tried to let in some aspects of the outside world while fiercely guarding its ancient traditions. Tourism is restricted; visitors must travel as part of a pre-arranged package or guided tour.

 What amazed and captivated me was to hear that national dress is compulsory – the knee-length wrap-around “gho” for men and the ankle-length dress known as the “kira” for women; it  is the world’s first non-smoking country (though behind closed doors people still do) and the government’s top priority is  “Gross National Happiness”, which strives to achieve a balance between the spiritual and the material and, though not so important but personally fascinating,  traditionally daughters inherit everything leaving sons to fend for themselves.

 It was mid February when we flew to Paro having spent the night en route in Delhi. The moment we entered Bhutanese air space the landscape underwent a total mutation, what were previously bare mountains were richly covered in a dense blanket of uninterrupted deep green pine forests. The plane swooped into Paro valley and screeched to a full halt within instants of hitting the short runway. 

 Cool, crisp air engulfed us the second the plane door opened – a far cry to what we have left behind in Delhi. The sun was blinding and there was not a cloud in the crystal clear winter sky. The mountain slopes were peppered with Swiss style chalets many covered with decorative motifs which on closer inspection (and to our intense amusement) were revealed to be phalluses – for good luck they said.  The town felt small and friendly and was overlooked and protected by the colossal Rinpung Dzong. Dzongs are large monasteries but also administrative centres which in the past doubled up as forts when they needed to defend themselves from the invading Tibetans.

 Our guides were in their early thirties and both were called Karma, soon to be known as Good Karma and Bad Karma as one was very mischievous and a real joker. They both wore ghos with knee high socks and smart black leather shoes which, to our utter amazement, they were able to trek up the steepest mountain trails and even ride mountain bikes. Within a matter of minutes our programme was laid out which included archery (the national sport), mountain biking and trekking plus visits to temples, monasteries and dzongs as well as a day spent viewing the first birthday celebrations of the 5th new king Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck.

 Early the next morning we set-off by 4×4 to the Chelela pass (3988m above sea level). It was a 40 minute drive on hair-pin curves up the steep mountain leaving Paro far below us. The terraces paddy fields gave way to deciduous forests that gradually changed to pine and cypress interspersed with rhododendrons and patches of snow. The air cooled down and was filled with scent of freshly cut wood and wet earth. When we reached Chelela the mountain ridge was covered with tall white prayer flags fluttering in the ever present breeze thereby sending their prayers to the gods.  We trekked through the forests to Kila Gowmmba nunnery which is nestled in a craggy patch on the mountainside below. Established in the 9th Century AD it is surrounded by numerous huts, perched precariously across the rock face and still to this day has no electricity. It seemed incredibly isolated and at the mercy of the elements.  I marvelled at how self-reliant and hardy these nuns must be. The closest road is 5 miles away and that too was only built in the last 20 years; prior to that it would have taken days to reach from the closest village.

 After a 3 hour hike we joined the road where our mountain bikes were awaiting us.  This was going to be FUN, twenty six kilometres all downhill. There was no need to peddle as the mountain was steep but none of us wanted to be last down. We tore down, skidding on the tight curves and cutting across each other picking up more and more speed and we hurtled down. Luckily for us there was virtually no traffic and the only people who saw us were a few Indian workers brought over by the government to maintain the roads and their children. The children worryingly yelled “Bye Bye” whilst the older men dropped their tools in surprise and shouted cheers of encouragement. The sense of freedom and exhilaration was intoxicating and we reached the bottom laughing like school children and delirious with excitement.  

 Taksang is the most important monastery in Bhutan. Defying gravity it clings to the cliffside hundreds of meters above Paro valley. Legend has it that this spot was where Guru Rinpoche (aka Padmasambhava) landed on the back of a flying tigress bringing Buddhism from Tibet to Bhutan. We started the climb mid morning and though short it was a fairly tough.  Forty minutes up and halfway there we reached a tea-house which was perfect for a brief rest in the warm winter sun. We had special permission to enter the monastery but it was only possible if we arrived there by midday. The last 40 minutes were the most exciting, the monastery seemed tantalisingly close but the cliffside paths and steps led us up and down (sure to send anybody suffering from vertigo into a full head-spin) but it seemed barely any closer.

 After a final flight of stairs with the valley far below us and views that reminded me of the lover’s leap in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” we reached the monastery and were met by a novice monk and quietly ushered in. Stepping through large red painted doors we entered a temple with dizzyingly colourful murals depicting what seemed like thousands of different manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, protective deities and terrifying demons. The smell of the flickering butter lamps mixed with the incense was heavy and the air felt close and stuffy. Monks were seated row upon row chanting whilst the abbot led the prayers from a raised dais. Tibetan horns were blown, drums beaten and the chanting became increasingly charged accentuated by its changing pace and volume. A senior monk made offerings in the form of money, butter and rice wine. He then carefully unwrapped a human skull and filled the silver lined cavity, which once held the brain, with rice wine which he distributed to the others. Each monk took a sip and it was then passed to the next. As guests I never expected to be included but did not take long before the monk was standing before me and gestured to me to drink. Caught up in the fervour of worship and never one to turn down a blessing I drank from the skull. I was touched to have been included and surprised at how spiritually moving I found the ceremony to be. Walking back down I could not help but a experience a morbid fascination wondering whose skull it was – was it a guru or an unfortunate enemy’s, and how did they choose it?  I guess some questions are best left unanswered.

If you wish to experience Bhutan for yourself, have a look at our Grand Tour of Bhutan and Classic Bhutan itineraries. If you would like any further information on Bhutan please do give me a call on 020 72896100 or e-mail me at james@ampersandtravel.com.

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