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Shiny happy people

Could there 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  

Sunday January 11, 2004
The Observer

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 outfit. 

We 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. 


Occasionally 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. 

The 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 birthday celebration.


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.


It 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.


Curious 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.


A 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.


For 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.


So 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 Organisation.


Meanwhile, 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.


Then, 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 soft hands.


On 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 something weird.


Next 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.


The 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.


Though 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.


The 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 with Tibet.


We 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 fun.


The 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 Canterbury Tale.


The 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.


Inside, 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 intensely musical.


I 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.


Two 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.


For 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.


This 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 Manchester United?


In 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.


The 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.


For 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.


Bhutan 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.


At 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.


At 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.'


Am 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.


I 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.


I 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.


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