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With a final blast of flaming gas, and just as the sun rises over the snow-powdered mountains to the east, we begin to float upwards. The inaugural flight of the world’s highest commercial hot-air balloon service is under way. On the ground, our team of young helpers whoop with excitement.
For the next hour we drift down Bhutan’s majestic Phobjikha Valley, savouring a bird’s-eye view of the Himalayan scenery unfolding around us. To the north, the 400-year-old Gangtey Goenpa monastery stands on a ridge, dominating the valley. On each side the valley’s forested flanks — home to leopards, bears and boar — rise steeply to the skyline. Below, the Nakey Chhu river meanders like a silver ribbon through pastures and water meadows.
As the sun burns away the mist, we drift silently above thickets of colourful prayer flags, gold-roofed temples and white-walled Bhutanese farmhouses with ornate wooden eaves and windows. We glide southwards over horses, cattle, the odd yak and a pack of dogs that bark furiously as the huge red translucent globe passes above them. Early-rising schoolchildren stare at the apparition in the sky. A peasant farmer stands in a field and watches — one presumes in amazement — a sight the likes of which he would never have seen before.
A narrowing of the valley funnels the breeze. Soon we are travelling at four or five knots, but so smoothly it seems that the ground, not the balloon, is moving. Our pick-up truck has been left far behind, bumping along a dirt track. Our young helpers, dressed in a traditional Bhutanese ghos, are splashing through bogs, laughing and shouting as they struggle to keep up. Finally Cary Crawley, a professional balloon pilot from England, lands us on a meadow sandwiched between the river and a tilled field, the wicker basket bumping three times along the frosty grass before it comes to rest on its side.
It was a short, experimental flight, but the six passengers are exhilarated — even the two civil aviation officials “inspecting” a means of transport they know absolutely nothing about. “Unbelievable!” cries my daughter Hannah. Khin Omar Win, one of the trip’s organisers, beams and asks rhetorically: “How exciting was that?”
“I told you we’d do it — and we did,” Win’s husband, Brett Melzer, declares triumphantly. The Melzers have good reason to be elated, for the flight is the culmination of a 10-year venture — or gamble — that can only be described as quixotic.
Win was born in Myanmar but raised in London. In 1997 she met Melzer, then a footloose Australian, in Yangon, and left the UN Development Programme to help him pioneer balloon rides over the famous Bagan temple complex. As “Balloons over Bagan” grew, they branched out, opening Malikha Lodge, a luxury retreat in the jungle of northern Myanmar that was accessible only by air. But in 2009 flights were suspended and they were forced to sell the lodge to a Burmese businessman with close links to the military regime.
Undaunted, the Melzers resurrected an idea they had begun work on in 2004: ballooning over Bhutan, another exotic, little-known country that was beginning to open up to the world. At their behest, Crawley spent six weeks scouring the tiny, crumpled kingdom of soaring mountains and plunging valleys created when the Indian subcontinent collided with Eurasia. A balloon could not take off or be retrieved on the rocky plateaux and snowfields of Bhutan’s highest peaks, or in its dense southern jungles. Phobjikha, at almost 3,000 metres above sea level, was the only valley wide and open enough.
There were still problems. It was on the outer edge of the tourist circuit — a six-hour drive along the “national highway”, a twisting one-lane ribbon of crumbling tarmac, from Bhutan’s only international airport. The valley is also the winter home of hundreds of thrung thrung karmo — black-necked cranes with six-foot wingspans and flamboyant mating dances — so the balloon cannot fly until those endangered birds have returned to the Tibetan plateau each spring. But Phobjikha was, Crawley says, “the only realistic choice”.
The Melzers initially envisaged building a modest guest house for their ballooning clients but ended up creating a spectacular $4m 12-suite boutique hotel in this most improbable of locations.
Gangtey Goenpa Lodge opened in 2013 and stands on the same ridge as the monastery, unsignposted and accessible only by a dirt track. From the outside, it resembles two Bhutanese farmhouses connected by a low barn. Inside, however, floor-to-ceiling windows offer sublime views of the cloud-wreathed valley below. The wood and stone is local, but the wood-burning stoves that heat each room come from Switzerland, the fancy bathtubs from the UK, and the fabrics from Australia — all shipped to Kolkata and trucked overland, along with the $100,000 balloon, which was made in Bristol, southwest England.
Sara Rezgui, the Scandinavian chef, performs marvels with fish and meat imported from India because the Buddhist Bhutanese will not kill animals. Most of the 45 staff, even the masseurs, are villagers trained from scratch and delightfully eager to please. Because the aviation inspectors arrived late, Hannah and I had to spend more days than we bargained for in this luxurious retreat, which was certainly no hardship. It also gave us more time to explore a valley rich in unexpected delights.
We watched maroon-robed boy monks hurling foot-long homemade darts at a distant target in a game called kuru. We watched two villages compete with astounding skill at the national sport of archery. Dressed in ghos and using bamboo bows, the archers regularly hit a small wooden post 140 metres away, prompting celebratory dances and songs from their teammates. Save for a single rifle shooter, Bhutan has sent only archers to the Olympics, but has never won a medal because Olympic targets are only half that distance.
We explored the courtyards and temples of the ancient monastery as monks performed rituals with horns, drums and a mournful pipe called a kangling, made from human thigh bones. “We dig them up at night or import them from Nepal,” one official replied without a trace of embarrassment when I asked where the bones came from.
An elite set of young monks known as tulkus explained to us how they had been identified in infancy as reincarnated Buddhist masters. We visited (but could not enter) a meditation centre ringed by a barbed-wire fence where older monks live incommunicado in single cells for three years, three months and three days, eating food left for them outside the building.
There was one other place we could not enter: a chamber deep within the monastery containing a mummified “yeti”. There is certainly something there, though it is more likely the corpse of a deformed child. Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner saw it in 1991. “Nailed to the wall by the back of its scalp was the hide of a ‘red yeti’,” he wrote later. “I was trembling with excitement. Bones were still attached to the relic’s hands and legs, and from its head, which was largely bald, hung a long, black hank of hair.”
Legends and superstitions abound in these parts. The cranes, we were told, circle the monastery three times clockwise when they arrive each winter. Homes are adorned with murals of tigers, snow lions, dragons and mythical serpent-eating garudas, and of giant, erect, sperm-trailing phalluses (commemorating the “Divine Madman”, a 15th-century saint known for unorthodox teaching and sexual encounters). Doorways have raised thresholds to stop the stiff-limbed dead from entering.
We hiked through fragrant pine forests where rhododendrons were bursting into flower. We cycled to a hilltop at the far end of the eight-mile valley, where the lodge had prepared a picnic lunch served on a table laid with linen, glass and china. We encountered a village woman shearing a squirming black sheep, a young shepherdess guarding her flock from leopards and foxes, and a yak herder driving his animals up to the higher pastures for the summer.
One night we forsook the lodge for a peasant family’s home — helping them milk cows and churn butter, sharing their rice, potatoes and arra (rice wine) as we sat cross-legged around their stove, playing grandmother’s footsteps with their four enchanting children.
But the valley is changing fast. Electricity, TV and mobile phones have all arrived — though not yet the internet. The “national highway” from the capital Thimphu is being upgraded to two lanes. The peasants have discovered that potatoes are a lucrative cash crop, so they no longer live semi-nomadic lives and are building new homes with roofs of steel not wooden shingles.
Bhutan, a land sealed off from the world until the 1970s, is now joining it. The much-loved monarchy has surrendered power, volunteering democracy to a population with no experience of it. The young are migrating from the villages to Thimphu. Foreign visitor numbers rose from 23,480 in 2009 to 116,209 in 2013, and new luxury hotels are proliferating.
In the face of such change, Bhutan is struggling to preserve its character and pristine environment — national dress is compulsory in schools and government buildings; the constitution requires 60 per cent of the country to be forested; tobacco and plastic bags are banned, and Tuesdays are dry. Mountaineering is restricted because it angers the deities who live on the snowy summits — at 7,570 metres Gangkhar Puensum is the world’s highest unclimbed mountain.
Bhutan wants tourists, but not the mass tourism that so often destroys the very attractions it feeds off, so visitors are obliged to spend at least $250 a day.
To date its efforts are largely succeeding. Its spectacular dzongs (fortresses) and monasteries are not yet overrun nor ringed by tacky souvenir shops. Its many festivals and masked dances are still staged primarily for locals, and have not morphed into commercial shows for foreigners. Buddhism still dominates Bhutan’s way of life, and its people still seem driven more by their legendary pursuit of happiness than money.
In a curious way the Melzers’ project supports the government’s goals. The 30-metre-high balloon makes a magnificent sight as it drifts silently down the Phobjikha Valley, enhancing not marring the natural beauty. The occupants of its wicker basket survey the valley without intruding on it. As befits a country known as Druk Yul, or “Land of the Thunder Dragon”, the balloon is emblazoned with huge golden dragons, and the occasional blasts of flame from its gas cylinders resemble nothing so much as a dragon’s fiery breath.
Just as they greet the cranes each year, the monks appear to welcome this foreign body in their ancient domain. One senior teacher, Chogyal Zangpo, blessed the balloon before joining its second flight, and again after landing. “I’ve had a wonderful experience,” he said. “I’ve never been in the air before and I’ll remember it all my life. I often watch the birds flying above, so now I know what they see.”
Martin Fletcher was a guest of The Ultimate Travel Company, which offers a 13-day “Bhutan Journey”, with four nights at Gangtey Goenpa Lodge, from £6,675 per person, including ballooning, private transfers, guides and all meals. Flights from London with Qatar Airways would add £1,220
Photographs: Ken Spence