really be an enchanted land where ancient and modern live in
harmony? Where nirvana and Nokia co-exist? Hold your cynicism...
William Sutcliffe becomes one of the few travellers lucky enough to
find the real Shangri-La
January 11, 2004
You don't glide into Bhutan,
you plummet. The valleys are so steep that to reach the nation's
only airport, at Paro, your jet has to go into the kind of
nose-down-tail-up dive normally only seen in disaster movies. Below
you, the pine trees and paddy fields get closer and closer, and for
a few horrible moments you think the pilot is intending to land the
plane on its front wheels. Then at the last second you tilt
backwards, the rear wheels touch down, and you have landed. I am met
at the airport by a guide whose name, Karma, seems auspicious. He is
a neat, courteous 27-year-old in polished black shoes, long socks
and a gho - traditional Bhutanese male dress which resembles a
knee-length dressing gown with broad white cuffs. After a short
drive into town, it is apparent that this isn't a folklore act for
tourist consumption. Almost every man, from the peasants in the
fields to drivers in Toyota Land Cruisers, is wearing the same
drive to Drukgyel Dzong, a ruined 17th-century fortress, once used
to protect the country from invading Tibetans. As I pick my way
around the teetering central tower, an extraordinary sound wafts
through the air - a women's choir singing strange harmonies,
seemingly part Indian, part Eastern European. It is so beautiful
that I think I must be imagining it. Karma leads me back to the
first courtyard and there we see nine women singing, watched by
children huddled on a worn and mildewed stone staircase. The women
wear long dresses with short, silk jackets in bright blues, reds and
purples. They are standing in a line, shoulder to shoulder, doing a
slow dance that at first uses only the arms, then involves a series
of slow steps and swivels.
one of them falters over their words, or a dance step, and laughter
bubbles up through the song. This is not a performance for tourists
either (I am the only one there). It is a lesson - part of the
Non-Formal Education programme, a government-run scheme to educate
women who came of age before universal schooling was introduced in
the Seventies. Any woman too old to have attended school can take
classes after their day's work in reading, writing, dancing and
singing. We watch until the light fails then reluctantly draw
ourselves away. As we walk back to the car, the music drifts out
over the ruined walls and through the dusk air like a siren song
pulling us back.
following day is the king's birthday, marked this year not just with
the usual parades and celebrations but with the inauguration of
Bhutan's mobile phone service. At my hotel I bump into Englishman
Michael Rutland, who has lived in Bhutan since he 'went to the wrong
dinner party' 30 years ago and ended up as tutor to the man who is
now king. He is in good spirits, despite claiming that his dog, kept
to frighten away bears, had the previous day been eaten by a
leopard. He invites me to join him in the dignitaries' tent for the
entire town has come out, from child monks in crimson robes to aged
peasants in their finest ghos. People are buying and selling
clothes, food and toys, or gossiping in groups, or rehearsing in
corners for their part in the day's celebrations. Others are
picnicking, dotted all over the grassy parade ground, with a few
select groups huddled in intense debate around mobile phones.
is like a village fete, but with something strangely
hushed-yet-joyful, something uniquely calm, in the air. A Buddhist
crowd doesn't behave like any other you will ever encounter. They
seem capable of celebrating at a volume Westerners would consider
appropriate for a funeral.
to see how deep this tranquil streak in the national character
really runs, I head out that night with Karma to a night club, or
'dance party' as it is known here. We turn up at nine-ish to a
brightly lit, slightly chilly room above a shop. It has cream walls
decorated with balloons, streamers, Buddhist thangkas (sacred
images), a cartoon cat and two deer-head woodcuts. There is a bar in
one corner, but the room is dominated by three long, fully laid
tables, around which 30 or so people are scattered. The music is a
mix of rap and Europop. With a mischievous glint in his eye, Karma
turns to me and says, 'Tonight - you and me - we are not married.'
It's good to know that even Buddhists called Karma have the same
appetites as the rest of us.
buffet meal is served. Everyone sits and tucks into several courses
of rice and curry, which isn't my idea of how to get a dancefloor
going, but they do things differently in Bhutan. Around 10, the
tables are pushed back, the lights dimmed and the music turned up.
No one, however, is ready to dance.
a long while, nothing happens. Karma and I discuss politics. He
explains to me that the health minister told the king a few years
ago that he needed to introduce charges or the free universal health
care in the country would go bust. Three times he asked the king for
permission to introduce charges, and three times the king gave the
same reply: that he would under no circumstances be allowed to
charge, and, furthermore, that it was his responsibility to make the
system continue to function.
what did the minister do? He did a sponsored walk. He drove to the
far east of the country and walked back to Thimpu, the capital,
publicising his cause so well that every Bhutanese citizen who could
afford it chipped in, as did many rich foreigners, Bill Gates giving
£175,000 (a full 10 minutes' wages). The minister needed £14m. He
raised more than £10m, and was given a medal by the World Health
the dance floor is still empty. At the end of each track I can hear
the tell-tale click of tape deck DJing, followed by a slightly eerie
silence as the next cassette is bustled into place.
to the sound of Robbie Williams's 'Rock DJ', two girls from the
corner edge into the middle of the room and begin tentatively to
sway and wiggle. Within seconds, a Tibetan-looking man in a beige
corduroy jacket, with a round, plate-sized face, has joined them. By
the time Robbie gets to the chorus, the floor is pumping, the air
thick with the euphoric relief you get at a wedding when the
speeches finally end. Not wanting to be the only wallflower, I
launch myself into the throng, and for most of the remaining
evening, to the dismay of Karma, my dance partner is the plate-faced
Tibetan man, who I discover is blessed with the most delightfully
the way home Karma tells me, with beery regret, that the most
beautiful women in the world are Korean. He goes on to wax lyrical
about how he loves his wife and will always be faithful to her. In
every town in the world, men in the back of taxis, heading home
disappointed from nightclubs of every description, are probably
having this same conversation. In Bhutan, everything is so strange
that after a while you are more shocked by something familiar than
morning we are up early to start our trek - four days, mostly at
3-4,000 metres - from Paro to Thimpu. In any other country, if you
were told you'd be trekking from the international airport to the
capital city, you wouldn't expect to see much of the countryside.
Not in Bhutan. Only 10 minutes from the edge of Paro, I am in
sparsely populated land, passing an orchard containing a gaggle of
children practising archery. Soon I am walking through dense pine
forest, and by nightfall, eight hours' hard slog later, I'm camping
on a high-altitude meadow, with snow-covered peaks all around and a
family of nomadic yak herders in a neighbouring tent.
second the sun dips out of view, the temperature plummets. Within
half an hour, you go from a T-shirt to several jumpers and a down
jacket. A few of our neighbours join us round our camp fire (made
only from dead wood, to protect the forests). One is a13-year-old
boy who is wearing one layer to my seven. With Karma translating, I
ask what his favourite game is. 'Yak herding,' he replies. Does he
attend school? 'No.' Somehow it's not hard to guess what job this
boy is going to end up with. Karma questions his father about their
herd, and discovers that the family own 80 yak. With each animal
worth nearly £300, these nomads may live simply and uncomfortably,
but by Bhutanese standards they cannot be described as poor.
the walking is hard, trekking in Bhutan is superbly well organised.
From the minute you arrive in camp, you are pampered. Your tent is
already up, your bag has arrived ahead of you by horse, and tea
awaits you, with a delicious, hot three-course dinner shortly to
follow. For audio-visual entertainment, you are given more stars
than I ever thought existed and an all-night symphony of yak grunts.
Yak, incidentally, produce a deeper and throatier moo than the
deepest, throatiest moo you have ever heard. On the scale of bovine
grunting, cows are Aled Jones, yak are Barry White.
second day's walk carries on up through dense, ancient rhododendron
forest. As the vegetation changes back to spruce, the path winding
through mossy logs and hanging lichen, you feel as if Sir Gawain in
full armour could appear around the next corner. We eat lunch on a
4,200m ridge, overlooking Jhomolhari, one of the world's highest
unclimbed peaks, then the path drops sharply to a lake, beside which
we make our second night's camp in the company of two more families
of yak herders. Another day of climbing brings us to the Phume La
pass, from which a view of the whole Himalayan range to the north
comes into view - a wall of white 7,000m peaks that forms the border
camp in the grounds of Phajoding Monastery, perched high above
Thimpu. Talk around the campfire gets laddish, and I discover that a
couple of nights previously our horseman (not his actual job - I
don't want to get anyone in trouble) enjoyed extramarital activity
with a yak herder's daughter. He accomplished this with the help of
one of the cooks, who paid the family a visit earlier and kept the
mother occupied with a bottle of brandy. Meanwhile, behind the
mother's back, the horseman hatched a plan with the daughter, and at
half past midnight he sneaked out and slipped into the nomad tent.
Confident the mother was sleeping more soundly than usual, right
there in the family tent, the nomad girl and the horseman had their
anecdote was long and detailed, including many technicalities of how
to accomplish sub-zero copulation with minimum discomfort, and was
related to raucous laughter all round. It could almost have been a
sacred and the profane coexist in Bhutan like nowhere else, and at
dawn I hear a horn being blown in the monastery and wander up to see
what is happening. A teenage monk, who is heading for morning
prayers, gestures that if I take off my shoes I can follow him and
watch from the doorway.
a middle-aged monk is sitting cross-legged on a raised plinth,
chanting in a deep mesmeric murmur, with a pair of cymbals on his
lap. He is flanked by six monks with shaven heads, wearing crimson
robes. They all have bells in front of them, the handles polished
with use to a brassy lustre. Two monks have eight-foot horns, and
two more are sitting in front of drums the size of a man's chest.
Between chants, the bells, horns, cymbals and drums blast out an
astonishing sound that manages to seem both utterly chaotic and
watch and listen with the shafts of dawn light in the incense-thick
air creeping up from the walls to the floor. Everything disappears
from my mind except that room, those monks and their music. I could
be in any one of the last 10 centuries. Then I hear a familiar
modern trill. One of the monks pulls a chunky mobile phone from
under his robes, takes the call, has a leisurely chat, then puts it
away again and continues praying.
hours' walking later, I am in the capital city. Though Thimpu is
home to fewer than 50,000 people, and is supposedly the only capital
in the world with no traffic lights, after the serene other-worldly
beauty of the trek, it feels brash and busy. I spend the next few
days visiting the markets and dzongs (a cross between a monastery, a
civic centre and a fortress) of the capital and its surrounding
area, but however many cultural and architectural wonders I see, it
is the trek that stays with me.
centuries Bhutan turned its back on everything the West has to
offer. Only in the last 30 years has it dipped its toe into the
treacherous waters of development, and the staggering fact is that
this tiny, archaically ruled monarchy seems to be one of the only
nations in the world that has managed to play the development game
by its own rules. It has cherry-picked the technological advances
that serve its purposes - modern medicine has almost doubled life
expectancy in the last three decades, for example - while rejecting
those that would threaten its social and environmental fabric.
may seem like a simple and obvious goal, yet I can think of no other
country that has achieved it. Where else is national dress popularly
and unselfconsciously worn by the majority of the population? Where
else does protected forest grow to the very fringes of an expanding
21st-century capital? Where else is archery more popular than
praising Bhutan, however, one treads perilously close to patronising
it. Is Bhutan backward and underdeveloped or is it pure and
untainted? Every term that comes to mind is either pejorative or
condescending. Our language is incapable of flatteringly describing
Bhutan's rejection of our version of modernity.
king of Bhutan talks of 'Gross National Happiness', an ideal he
purports to place above that of Gross National Product. Reading this
before arriving in Bhutan, it is hard not to snort with derision.
Yet as the days go by, cynicism evaporates. Watching the middle-aged
women dancing and singing at the close of their state-funded adult
literacy class, registering the courtesy and mutual respect of
pedestrians and drivers on every street, hearing more about
ministerial sponsored walks and the deep-seated non-materialism of
the population, you begin to think the unthinkable - that maybe this
slogan has been translated into a genuine political ethos, and, by
extension, that the monarch is actually rather good at his job.
a leftist republican, this is a shocking conclusion, but Bhutan does
seem to be better run than any democracy in the region. No other
ruler seems to have understood and acted on the fact that a
subsistence farmer earning £300 a year in a stable village society
is infinitely better off than an urban slum-dweller earning £1,500
a year sewing Nike footballs.
is one of a handful of states that is developing, rather then being
developed. Amid the global chaos of our new century, Bhutan somehow
seems in control of its own destiny. Even its pursuit of the tourist
dollar - a high risk venture for any nation wedded to old traditions
- is meticulously managed to ensure that tourists are contributors
rather than plunderers. Every visitor to Bhutan pays a minimum of
around £120 a day to the tour company organising their trip, of
which £38 or so goes directly to the government. Without a tour
company, you won't get a visa. There is no quota, but this policy
means that each year fewer than 5,000 foreigners come, and this
seems to be how the Bhutanese like it.
every turn, economically and environmentally, Bhutan seems to think
twice and consider its own interests before accepting the Western
buck. If this appears cold or calculating, nothing could be less
representative of the spirit of the country. In choosing what it
wants from modernity, Bhutan is simply being extremely careful. In
everything else, the country is as wild as ever.
the airport, flying out of Bhutan, an unusual souvenir catches my
eye: a fully functional bow and arrow. Registering my interest, an
enthusiastic shop assistant strings the bow and attaches a sharp
metal tip to the arrow. 'Very good quality,' she says. 'Can kill
pig. Can kill horse.'
I allowed to take it on the plane, I ask. 'Yes - no problem,' she
says, while the canteen manager from the next-door stall takes the
bow outside to give a demonstration in the departures hall. He pulls
the string taut, grins, and for a second I think he's going to
shoot, perhaps at an imaginary horse on its way through customs.
tell him that I might have problems at Heathrow if my hand baggage
is a lethal weapon. To placate him, I buy a couple of chocolate
bars. He tells me he loves me. This appears to be his only sentence
of English, but I am flattered nonetheless.
walk to the departure gate, grinning, knowing that this final moment
on Bhutanese soil has been just perfect - that those last five
minutes on their own tell the whole story about this unique,
bizarre, fascinating, beautiful, generous country.
William Sutcliffe and photographer Jill Mead travelled to Bhutan
with Himalayan Kingdoms (0845 330 8579). The company offers seven
Bhutan itineraries lasting from 15-40 days and costing from £2,995
to £5,250, with departures in March, April, September, October,
November and December.