By Lisa Grainger, Telegraph
f the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge suffer from altitude sickness, or get anxious motoring along vertiginous roads, they might consider booking the new Royal Bhutan Helicopter Service for their royal flit to the Buddhist kingdom this week.
This Switzerland-sized Himalayan nation, sandwiched between the great Asian goliaths of India and China, is in the heart of Himalayas, standing at 8,000ft. It is a kingdom that really is on top of the world. Not that I felt exactly that way myself when I arrived. Having flown alongside eight of our planet’s highest mountains from Delhi, then corkscrewed into a narrow valley on to one of the world’s most treacherous runways, my nerves were on high alert. An enormous hoarding beside the airport terminal bearing the smiling faces of the Bhutanese king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and his queen, Jetsun Pema, didn’t soothe my thumping, oxygen-deprived brain. And then there was the “national highway” to contend with: a winding, mountainous dirt track strewn with boulders and carved up by landslides.
But the duke and duchess will almost certainly think it’s all worthwhile if, as I did, they manage to acclimatise and absorb – via some sort of karmic osmosis – a smidgen of the tranquillity that characterises the Bhutanese people. Contentment positively radiates from them – and it’s catching. The subjects of the last Himalayan Tantric Buddhist kingdom are not only strictly pacifist (refusing even to fish or butcher meat themselves) and family-oriented, but also fiercely protective of their land and culture.
The Prince of Wales, when he visited in 1998, must have loved it. Annoying things such as smoking and plastic bags are forbidden. By law, all buildings have to be traditionally built (which should ensure there are no “carbuncles”, such as the prince’s loathed National Theatre). And the wearing of national dress on official business is compulsory (although men are required to wear a wrap-dress called a gho, rather than Savile Row suits). And just in case anyone is unsure who is in charge of this harmonious world, portraits of the 35-year-old fifth king and his goddess of a wife are plastered everywhere.
In spite of the overarching royal presence, though, visiting here feels like a privilege, a rare chance to peek into an ancient kingdom where Western “essentials” only recently arrived. Roads, for instance, which appeared only in 1962 (after Nehru and his daughter Indira Ghandi had trekked on paths from India by horseback and foot). Schools, doctors, stamps and currency, were introduced only in the 1960s. The internet and television started in 1999. It’s like being whisked back 50 years. “Although we had some Western clothes as children,” one young man put it, “it’s only recently, with TV, that we’ve understood what fashion is.”
And because independent travel is forbidden, I had nothing to worry about. Like the British royals, my nine-day trip was in the hands of my guide, Ugyen Tenzing. And as he rather quaintly put it: “As visitors to this country, you are now family and it is our duty to our king to look after you. So please relax and enjoy the views.”
And what views… the county’s landscapes are a bit like Switzerland’s, but less populated and rather more exotic. From passes such as the stupa-covered Dochu La, vast vistas of steep mountains rise to almost 24,000ft, cut through by luminous pale green glacial rivers and clothed in broad-leafed forest, which gives way to pine higher up. Farmhouses dot the slopes, all built in the country’s distinctive architectural vernacular: part half-timbered Tudor barn, part Oriental temple, with walls ornately adorned with religious talismans. The dragons and griffins, Ugyen tells us, are there to ward off evil spirits. So, too, apparently, are the depictions of enormous erect phalluses that decorate so many houses, particularly those near the Chimi Lhakhang monastery, just outside the town of Punakha.
It’s here that locals worship one of the country’s most extreme saints, the “Divine Madman”, a 15th-century Buddhist monk who persuaded locals that only by breaking with monastic convention and imbibing vast quantities of liquor and bedding endless women was he able to reveal spiritual truths and demolish demons. Having hiked past local shops adorned with lurid phalluses to commemorate “the saint of five thousand women” and his much-used “thunderbolt of flaming wisdom”, we climb to a temple built in his honour. En route, women in their best national dress – a long, narrow hand-woven skirt, plain jacket, ornate brooch and embroidered scarf – overtake, keen to give thanks for the babies strapped to their backs. Men hang prayer flags between trees, mumbling mantras as they walk, and spin rows of golden prayer wheels as monks blow into long, mournful-sounding horns.
Inside, too, the Bhutanese are busy communing with their gods. In the shadows – beneath multicoloured silk hangings, murals of beatific Buddhas and devilish demons, wafts of incense smoke and the flickering light of butter candles – families slip in and out, prostrating themselves before the altar with offerings. As well as fruit, rice and flowers, they have brought packets of biscuits, noodles and crisps, alongside wine and a potent local home-brew, ara. The monks here are clearly well looked after.
When Ugyen leaves a donation at the altar, a young monk abandons his mobile phone (as ubiquitous in monasteries as prayer beads) and appears with objects with which to bless us: a silver teapot from which he drips holy water on to our outstretched hands, and a large ivory phallus which he solemnly taps on to our heads. “It’s a good sign; we are now blessed,” proclaims Ugyen, closing his eyes in thanks, while I internally debate the ethics of having my head blessed with a phallus made from the tooth of an endangered creature.
Over the next week, I am blessed in many ways. It’s early in the year, and the skies couldn’t be bluer, or the air more crisp and fragrant with the scent of blue pine and woodsmoke. In later months, when most visitors come to take in elaborate festivals at Punakha and Paro in spring and at Thimphu in autumn, the country lives up to its nickname, the Kingdom in the Clouds. But the weather is at its best in January, says Ugyen: “It is when the clouds go on holiday and you can see right up to heaven. This is when everyone should come to Bhutan.”
He’s right. From dawn to sunset every day, I relish being outdoors under clear blue skies, discarding my sweater as the sun melts the silvery coating of frost in the valleys and casts a rosy glow on to the Himalayas. In most places, I am double-blessed by being the only tourist in evidence.
I wander through towns that have changed little from those described by the first Western Jesuit priests who ventured here in the 1627; I hike through golden rice paddies and pine forests to temples with intensely decorated interiors (the finest being one of the oldest, the smoke-blackened 12th-century Kichu Lhakhang in Paro, and one of the newest, the luridly coloured tantric Khamsum Chorten in Punakha). On other days I enjoy being the only visitor inside the country’s imposing white dzongs, or fortresses. At Punakha’s, I sit in a courtyard beneath a banyan tree planted by Nehru, watching red-robed monks chat; in Paro’s, I find myself amid fantastical Boschian iconography of heaven and hell.
In between monasteries and temples, there is always something new to stop at or explore. I stop to watch yaks graze on high mountain pastures and buy worn old prayer beads from a wizened nomad, herding horses. I visit a paper factory that still produces sheets by hand. I witness endangered black-necked storks soar above Gangtey valley and watch monks re-rolling 1,000 new prayer sheets into their golden wheels. I even try archery, the national sport, and applaud boys throwing giant darts in a field. And, of course, I puff and pant up to the World Heritage-protected Tiger’s Nest monastery, 3,000ft above the valley floor, which seems more like a fantastical stage setting than a 17th-century site of worship.
And when I’m not out in the sunshine, I’m being treated like British royalty in a string of five tiny boutique hotels constructed by Aman, the first hotel group to open in the country.
While the buildings’ simple designs might have been inspired by local dzongs and wooden-beamed farmhouses, the hotels’ standards are as high as any in, say, Tokyo or Venice. Within the spacious wood-clad suites, bukharis, or log-stoves, are lit beside big oval baths. Spa treats include soaks in outdoor hot-tubs warmed with mineral-rich, fire-heated stones and herbs.
Meals range from smoked salmon and tender Australian rib-eye to Bhutanese feasts coloured with chillies. Masala chai (or salted yak tea) is delivered with sweet smiles to (kingsized, feathered, hot-water-bottle-warmed) beds. And, best of all, throughout the journey the same guide and driver act as kind hosts and protective minders all the way.
Other than the roads, which by 2018 should have been widened and tarred, the country’s biggest drawback is the high cost of visiting it – something that William and Kate won’t have to worry about, as guests of the royals. Unlike Nepal and Tibet, Bhutan has decided to embark on a tourism model based on exclusivity and high rates; the minimum any visitor, staying in local guesthouses, will get away with paying is $250 (about £175) a day.
The reasoning behind that, says Kingzang Lhendup, a lecturer at the national College of Education who meets us for drinks, is to ensure that tourism not only swells the country’s coffers, but contributes to its “Gross National Happiness”, by luring respectful wealthy tourists and keeping out partying backpackers.
“We take very seriously the things that will help us grow economically, while keeping our culture and improving people’s well-being,” Lhendup says, citing the relatively few numbers of visas granted by the government (just 58,000 in 2014).
“We have also taken lessons from our neighbours. Nepal was once more beautiful than Bhutan; now it’s ruined, as is Kathmandu. And Sikkim is really troubled by violence. We don’t want that to happen here.”
Given the country’s stringent controls, it won’t. The Cambridges are wise to visit it now, though, before tourism takes off; currently, Indian tourists don’t need visas, so are flocking over the border, and the numbers of Chinese tourists staying at Amankora has now overtaken the Americans.
Given the media coverage this week’s royal visit is certain to generate, this little kingdom won’t be hidden for long.