On Druk Air, the only airline that flies into Bhutan, the stewardesses wear national dress and the in-flight magazine is charming and strange. After the usual chief executive’s letter – new route launched to Singapore, new Airbus added to the fleet – comes a feature about mermaids. It’s not an article about folk tales or legends but a serious exploration of how mermaids and other spirits interact with humans, written by the editor of one of the country’s national newspapers.
As I’m reading, the pilot comes on the Tannoy to suggest passengers look left – we are passing Mount Everest. In fact, on this two-hour flight from Delhi, we pass nine of the world’s 14 mountains above 8,000m, getting closer to each until we can clearly see the fearsome chaos of ice cliffs on the shoulder of Makalu and the wind blowing the snow off the summit of Kanchenjunga.
The aircraft descends, and the snowy ridges give way to forested ones. Through gaps in the cloud we see deep valleys, terraced fields and lonely monasteries, clinging to dusty hillsides. By the time we land at Paro, the passengers – mostly fleece-wearing Swiss, Britons and Belgians in their fifties and sixties – seem to be suffering from scenic overload. They just stand on the tarmac, beaming and turning in circles, looking up at the mountains and sucking great lungfuls of the clean, cold air (a delicious contrast to the smog of Delhi). They take photographs of the terminal (traditionally built, with white walls and elaborately carved and painted woodwork), then the sign that says, “Welcome to the kingdom of the thunder dragon”.
The excitement isn’t just about the scenery, though; there’s also sense of jubilation at finally reaching what is, for a certain type of traveller, the ultimate, trip-of-a-lifetime destination, a magical kingdom that represents an antidote to industrialised western society. Famously the authorities are more concerned with gross national happiness than gross national product, and the population, though poor, is educated and healthy. Smoking and plastic bags are banned. Last week officials revealed plans to become the only country in the world with a completely organic agricultural system.
Bhutan has long been cut off, both by the Himalayan walls that run along much of its border, and the isolationist policies of its rulers. The country did not get television until 1999 – it was the last in the world to do so. The first trickle of tourists only arrived in 1974. Traditions, religion and culture have survived intact. People still believe in mermaids.
Four nights later, I wake up at 2am, shivering hard and aware of something scratching my face. After a bit of semi-conscious fumbling, I find my torch, which reveals the inside of the tent walls are sparkling with frost. The moisture from my breath has frozen, coating a semi-circle around the top of my sleeping bag in solid ice.
Trekking in Bhutan has its hardships but there are compensations. We are at Jomolhari base camp, 4,044m above sea level, halfway into a week-long trek through Bhutan’s northern uplands. It is the most stunning place I’ve camped. Our tent is on flat meadow beside a meandering stream, just below a mani wall – an ancient wall carrying stones carved with the Buddhist mantra, om mani padme hum. Above it, on a dramatic rocky mound, is a ruined castle, and beyond that, the snows of 7,326m Jomolhari. Yaks wander among the bushes just beyond the campsite.
And if the country as a whole seems sequestered from the modern world, up here in the high mountain valleys, life, on the surface at least, seems to continue as it did in medieval times. A yak herder who invites us in for tea shows us his storeroom in which everything from ropes to rugs and bags is made of yak hair. The yak’s milk is turned into butter with a wooden churn of the kind you might find in an Alpine museum.
We are following the Yaksa trek, a circular route that starts at 2,600m where the road runs out at the northern end of the Paro valley. It follows the Pa Chhu river, climbing up through a dense forest of blue pine, evergreen oak and pink birch, old man’s beard hanging from the high branches. As the altitude grows, the vegetation dwindles. Forest gives way to occasional clumps of rosehip and Himalayan willow bushes. By the time we reach Jomolhari base camp, we have entered a stark landscape of coarse grass and rocky scree.
Trekking here isn’t like in Nepal, where there is a network of teahouses to feed and accommodate tourists. In these mountains, there are far fewer villages, no teahouses, in fact no tourist infrastructure at all. The trails are not designed for sightseeing, they are longstanding trade routes, the only means of travel through a vast swath of northern Bhutan. At night we hear trains of horses – smugglers heading over the mountains to Tibet, moving in the dark to avoid detection.
Even on the most popular routes, walkers must be self-sufficient, which means any trip grows into a fairly major expedition. My girlfriend and I are accompanied by a guide, a cook, an assistant cook, a horseman and three horses. This is travelling light – a group of three Americans we meet has nine horses.
The downside is that, like all tourism in Bhutan, trekking is strictly controlled. Our route has been arranged weeks in advance and submitted to government authorities for approval by Blue Poppy, a specialist tour operator with offices in Thimpu, the capital, and London. We carry with us two permits, one from the department of forestry, the other from the army, which have to be checked at various points along the route. Climbing the high peaks has been banned since 1994, after villagers complained that previous expeditions had angered the deities dwelling on the mountain tops.
But the upside is that, though our route is one of the country’s most popular treks, those three Americans are literally the only other tourists we see all week.
Visitor numbers to the country are growing but remain tiny. Not including Indians (who can drive over the border without a pre-arranged visa), only 53,504 foreign tourists came last year – about the same number that visit the Tower of London every week. Only about 10 per cent of those go trekking.
And though it initially seems anachronistic to be on a walking holiday with staff, it comes as a blessed relief to be woken, after a night spent in the netherworld between shivering and sleep, by the gentle voice of Tenzin, the shy assistant cook. “Good morning, here is bed tea,” he whispers, unzipping a crack in the tent and handing in two steaming cups.
The days follow a similar routine. After breakfast in the dining tent, we start walking, accompanied by Rinzin Dorje, the guide we feared would be a gooseberry but whose company turns out to be a highlight of the trip. The crew strike camp and load up the horses, overtaking us sometime during the day and hurrying on to the next campsite, where they will pitch the tents before we arrive. Tenzin walks separately and when we rendezvous for lunch, in a clearing beside a stream or a sheltered hollow on the hillside, he pulls a tiffin box from his rucksack and serves three or four dishes with rice.
We walk for between four and seven hours a day, arriving in time to have afternoon tea sitting on camp chairs in the sun. We munch biscuits and watch as the sun sinks towards the mountains in the west, casting a shadow that moves along the valley, slowly at first, then rushing towards us and plunging us back into the cold.
It is mid-November, towards the end of the three-month autumn trekking season, which means it’s cold but also that the air is perfectly clear. After leaving Jomolhari base camp, we climb again, past the frozen lakes at Tsho Phu. The jagged peak of Jitchu Drake is reflected in the ice and Rinzin stops to take photos with his smartphone, immediately uploading them on Facebook. When we move on, he talks about the deities that live in water – swimming is not allowed – and gives a long explanation about how another lake was created by the impact of a drum dropped by a flying Buddhist lama.
This, in essence, is Bhutan’s story now – modern communications meet oral tradition, western influences meet devout, centuries-old beliefs.
Beyond the lakes, we climb up to the Bonte La, a 4,890m pass, and shout the traditional celebration, “Lha gyal lo!” (may the gods prevail). Then the path drops into the Yaksa valley, through golden pastures dotted with gnarled juniper trees and the occasional large, whitewashed, farmhouse. It is like an exotic version of Switzerland.
The farmers may use wooden milk churns but they are not necessarily poor. Unlike in other Himalayan countries, when you walk through a remote village, children never rush up to ask for gifts. In fact, the economy here has been transformed in the past decade by a law allowing residents to collect Ophiocordyceps sinensis, the “caterpillar fungus”, which is prized in Chinese medicine. A kilo of the fungus can fetch more than £10,000, and Rinzin recounts stories of farmers in yak-hair clothes carrying sacks of money into the bank in Paro.
There are other changes afoot in Bhutan. Rinzin tells us his children like watching cartoons rather than listening to the stories he was brought up on, and how, in the towns, fewer young people are wearing the gho and kira, the national costume that is still compulsory for those in public office. Thimpu is growing fast and there are mirrored-glass buildings beside the carved wooden ones. Many cars have Manchester United or Chelsea scarves hanging in their rear windows.
So there’s an element of “come now, before it changes”, but don’t panic, especially if you are prepared to walk. At the end of the trek, we retrace our steps along the Pa Chhu, occasionally passing a little man-made pool, beside which a bonfire smoulders. Rocks are baked in the fire for hours, ready to be thrown into the pool to warm the water when the owner is ready.
Today the spas of Bhutan’s smart hotels offer luxurious versions of these traditional “hot stone baths”, with water covered in marigolds and camphor leaves, but these are the real thing, taking place as they have for hundreds of years – in the open air, right beside the rushing river and the public path. A laughing family takes it in turns to soak their muscles after a day planting crops; a mother tenderly bathes her small child.
Backwater luxury: From Park Lane to the Punakha valley
Beneath the terrace of the new Uma hotel in the Punakha valley, fields drop away to the rushing, glacial waters of the Mo Chhu. Far above, the snowy peak of Kang Bum is just visible, but Punakha, in central Bhutan, sits at an altitude of just 1,200m – more than 1,000m below Thimpu or Paro – and so banana plants grow by the roadside, beside swaths of cherry blossom and bushes of bright red poinsettia.
In the fields, the farmers pile hay into conical stacks like those painted by Monet in 1890, and yet the hotel terrace could not be more up to date. Waiters serve warm ginger and lime muffins with watermelon jam, and freshly made macchiato to guests sitting on chic white loungers. Behind the terrace is the hotel’s main public room, a double-height, glass-walled lounge, as architecturally striking as the very latest openings in Bali or Thailand.
That such a hotel should find itself in such a remote, and little-visited backwater is one of the paradoxes of Bhutan. Yet Uma Punakha, which opened in September 2012, is only the latest in a string of exclusive hotels to come to the country, attracted by the wealthy profile of visitors and encouraged by a government eager to attract “low volume, high value” tourists.
Apart from Indians and Bangladeshis, all visitors to Bhutan must pay a minimum daily fee – currently $250 per person per day (rising to $290 for solo travellers) – which covers hotels, travel, food and a full-time guide. In practice, this means there are no backpackers and, therefore, no backpacker cafés, no banana pancakes, no tie-dye and certainly no full-moon parties. In Paro, marijuana grows shoulder-high in the town centre, disturbed only by the pigs.
In fact, many visitors end up spending far more than $250 per day, in order to stay in Bhutan’s top-end hotels. Aman, the chain known for its minimalist style, has five properties in Bhutan and rates that can top $1,000 per night.
Uma Punakha is the second Bhutan outpost for Como Hotels, the Singapore-based group best known for Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos and the Metropolitan on London’s Park Lane. It calls the 11-room hotel an “adventure lodge” but it is for those who like to end a day’s adventuring in a marble bathroom, or drinking lychee martinis as the sun sets.
That Como has opened in Punakha is a sign of tourism’s spread towards the east of Bhutan. Until now, visitors have concentrated on the west of the country after landing in Paro, one of the few places in Bhutan with enough flat land to make an airport. From there, anyone wanting to travel east had to spend hours on the one, winding road, where landslides often cause delays.
Late last year, however, regular domestic flights began between Paro and Bumthang, meaning tourists can drive one direction and fly back. Another route, from Paro to Tashigang, even further east, is due this year. New treks are being opened in the east, and more smart hotels are expected to follow.
Como are hoping guests will combine Uma Punakha with visits to their first Bhutanese hotel, which opened in Paro in 2004 – travelling by car, bike or, best of all, on a 10-day trek between the two.
Where Uma Punakha sits among bamboo and banana, Uma Paro is on a pine-covered hillside high above Paro town. Both were designed by Bali-based architect Cheong Yew Kuan but where Uma Punakha is modern and striking, Uma Paro, which has 20 rooms and nine villas, is more traditional. The main building is whitewashed stone and dark wood, with the same overhanging eaves and sloping roof as Bhutan’s monasteries and farmhouses.
Guests can try archery, the national sport, among the trees, then eat yak curry sitting around a wood-burning stove, or bukhari, in the restaurant. I can’t decide if it’s weird or wonderful that the signs for the toilets are identical to the ones in the bar at the Metropolitan on Park Lane.
Tom Robbins was a guest of Virgin Atlantic (www.virginatlantic.com), Blue Poppy Tours (www.bluepoppy bhutan.com) and Como Hotels (www.comohotels.com). A 10-day trip with Blue Poppy, including the Yaksa trek, costs from £1,500, including meals, guides and transfers. Doubles at Uma Punakha cost from $400, and at Uma Paro from $300 (private villas from $700). Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London to Delhi, from £636 return. In Delhi, he stayed at the ITC Maurya (www.itchotels.in; doubles from £233). For general information on visiting the country, see www.tourism.gov.bt