Cliffhanger: Mountains of Adventure in Bhutan


24.09.2017

FILED UNDER
BLOG, WRITINGS, ADVENTURE

Is it the journey or the destination that brings contentment? Exploring Bhutan –home of Gross National Happiness– by mountain bike might well provide the answer.

WORDS BY PHILIP BOWEN

For Yarab, my Bhutanese guide, the two-hour hike up to Tiger’s Nest was one of them. “The more I go,” he called down to me as I sweated up a series of steep steps, “the more I get a benefit for my karma. The present is what you are doing; the future is a gift.”

Practising Buddhists have a habit of saying things like that while smiling serenely at you. Frankly, the only gifts I wanted at that particular point were a more capacious pair of lungs and a set of reupholstered kneecaps. Yarab paused, waiting for me to catch up.

“BST: Bhutanese Stretchable Time”, Yarab called it. And time certainly seems to have stretched and slowed in this peculiar, landlocked country. Bhutan is small – just twice the size of Wales – and spectacularly isolated, tucked away in the eastern Himalayas between the vast subcontinent of India and the even mightier swathe of China. Getting there is hard enough. There is limited land access from northern India, and a maximum of three international flights arrive each day, most being connections from Bangkok and Delhi. Even landing the plane is difficult. Only eight pilots in the world are licensed to touch down an Airbus A319 in the high-sided Paro valley, home to the country’s single international airport.

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“BST: Bhutanese Stretchable Time”, Yarab called it. And time certainly seems to have stretched and slowed in this peculiar, landlocked country. Bhutan is small –just twice the size of Wales– and spectacularly isolated, tucked away in the eastern Himalayas between the vast subcontinent of India and the even mightier swathe of China.

The few tourists who make the journey – there were only about 21,000 international arrivals last year – are presented with a country that has, deliberately it seems, decided to apply the brakes to much of what the West would regard as progress. Most of Bhutan’s 700,000 inhabitants depend on subsistence farming. Ploughs are pulled by cattle, crops harvested by hand. Terraces of rice step the hillsides and what heavy industry there is has been confined to the southern border with India.

Adventures in Bhutan

The few tourists who make the journey – there were only about 21,000 international arrivals last year – are presented with a country that has, deliberately it seems, decided to apply the brakes to much of what the West would regard as progress. Most of Bhutan’s 700,000 inhabitants depend on subsistence farming. Ploughs are pulled by cattle, crops harvested by hand. Terraces of rice step the hillsides and what heavy industry there is has been confined to the southern border with India.

Thimphu, the capital city, is expanding rapidly – and is guilty by Bhutanese standards of a measure of urban sprawl. But it’s still a low-tech, lo-fi sort of place: a market here, a jumble of shops there. The major crossroads is governed not by a set of traffic lights, but by a policeman directing matters from a central podium.

Getting around isn’t easy either. Despite the arrival of a new domestic airport in the south of the country this month, and plans for two more, most journeys are along single-lane roads which twist round valleys or plummet down mountainsides. Thin metal suspension bridges, hung with prayer flags, are spun across rivers as precarious pedestrian crossings.

Yarab would no doubt have claimed that such inconveniences are merely physical obstacles on a more spiritual journey. But physical obstacles matter. From ground level, access to the Tiger’s Nest monastery – which dates back to the 15th century and is one of Bhutan’s key tourist attractions – seems impossible. The temple is a fantastic feat of engineering, squatting white-walled and red-roofed atop an unyielding face of stone, thrust 1,000m skywards. On closer inspection, though, our route to the top was revealed as a narrow path within a forest of pine, cleverly hidden from view below. Yarab and I had joined a loose crocodile of local pilgrims, plus a motley selection of French and Japanese tourists.