Orphans of the storm

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Once upon a time there was a saint.

He wasn’t much like a saint by western standards. He was fond of women and did unprintable, horrible things to evil lady-spirits. He liked sleeping in the nude in an, erm… “excited” state. And he spent a few years shouting obscenities as a religious chant.

But a saint he was, and, one day, our errant hero was hungry. He was very hungry. So hungry, in fact, that he ate a whole cow and a whole goat. Right down to the bones.

When the old woman swallowed her horse, she died (of course). But when the Divine Madman (for such was his name) swallowed his cow and goat, he didn’t. Instead, he played with the leftovers, screwing the goat’s head onto the cow’s body and sending the improbable result out to pasture.

And thus, where Britain gained a healthy-eating advert, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan gained its national animal, the takin, a beast that’s so topsy-turvy taxonomists had to give it a genus all its own.

It’s not a bad choice for an animal because, like the takin, Bhutan’s just that little bit different. Pretty much everything it does, from its attitude to tourists to the construction of pavements, is slightly out-of-kilter with the rest of the world. And you end up loving the place for it.

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For most tourists the Bhutanese adventure starts with the flight in, which takes you right next to the high Himalayas (I’m not normally one for taking pictures out of plane windows but when the view includes a little rock called Everest I make an exception) and ends with your plane dropping deep into a valley and executing a mid-air U-turn at about the point when you realise you’re going to crash into a cliff.

And it’s all go from there.

Bhutan’s approach to tourism is designed to keep the money flowing in and the damage staying out. The logic of the “value tourism” model is that, if you make people pay oodles to come in, then those who come are likely to be pensioners or the super rich, neither of whom are going to contaminate the culture or the environment too much.

And in return for your (substantial) cash you get, well, everything.

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Take me, for instance. I was going trekking. And in Bhutan you trek with an entourage. So, as I laced up my boots, I was joined, in quick succession, by six horses, the man who deals with the horses, a cook (who would walk with us to carry my lunch), my guide and an assistant to the cook. Oh, and at each campsite I would have my own table and chair – with beer holder – too.

My trek was to follow the Druk Path – a route between Paro, where the airport is, and Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. Often described as the way people used to walk between the two in the old days (Bhutan’s roads came only in the 1960s), it’s actually the route people used to get to a sacred lake along the way.

Despite rising to around 4,000 metres, the Druk Path ought not to be too arduous. Most days of the five day hike finish by two (unless the tourist at the centre of it all demands the party continue to stave off boredom) and the distances covered aren’t huge.

But it is arduous, for two reasons.

One, in common with other Bhutanese routes, the Druk Path likes going up by hundreds of metres at a time and down by hundreds of metres at a time. A typical day could see you wake up at 3,800 metres, drop down to 2,800 metres and then camp at 3,800 metres again. It’s possible the builders of the path were so enlightened they flew above it but, for the rest of us, the Druk Path eats your legs.

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And two, nights in the Himalayas are a bit chilly. When the sun drops below the mountaintops, what was a balmy day becomes – almost instantly – a night so cold you need to sleep with two jumpers and a woolly hat pulled right down over your nose. It gets so cold that water squeezes out of the soil and crystallises in strands that last well into the day. And in the morning, if you’re lucky, you won’t have to blow on your tent’s zipper until you feel giddy to get out.

So, with your legs aching and your fingers turning blue, you trudge along wondering how much more you can take before you go mad. And, in return, you see things that you’d never have seen if you’d stayed down below.

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You see people drying chillies on their roof for the winter, prayer flags carrying wishes for the dead.
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You see shrines (stupa) filled with offerings for the gods of every shape and size from long, tomb-like buildings to cairns rising up from the waters of a lake.

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And you see the Bhutanese version of the great outdoors: 7,000-metre mountains glimpsed through the trunks of pine trees ravaged by fire, lakes that harbour angry spirit-guardians, the tundra-like bogs that greet you when you break the tree line, and the forbidding sight of the roof of the world, draped in cloud and quite capable of killing you if the weather turns.So that’s the trekking part. Getting to grips with the wilds of Bhutan is relatively easy compared to understanding its culture: the former requires only legs, thermal underwear and an acceptance that, no matter how hard you try, they’re still going to serve you a seven-course meal up a mountain. But even as a cosseted tourist in this most cosseting of countries, it is possible to get some idea of what’s going on underneath the skin if you ask around.Start with the politics. Bhutan has been governed since the 1970s according to the principle of Gross National Happiness. Decisions are taken not with regard to monetary gain but with regard to their overall effect on the spiritual and general wellbeing of the populace.And just recently transformed from an absolute into a constitutional monarchy, Bhutan’s last king resigned aged only 50, giving him the rare opportunity to crown his 29-year-old son.

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What effect does this have? Well, by and large, there’s a sense of stability and people smile a lot. They come up to you and practise their English. Children play and giggle in rice paddies. There are no beggars, a fact you notice very quickly when wandering the streets of Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, and you don’t come across people flaunting wealth, either. And people really, really love their king.You see images of him everywhere: on badges pinned to men’s chests, in people’s cars, and in portraits hung on the walls of shops and homes. And this time, unlike Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi’s image surveys the masses from advertising hoardings, the Bhutanese seem to have put him there by choice.Something, clearly, is being done right.And then there’s the other ingredient: Buddhism.

Bhutan is a deeply religious place. Prayer flags sprout in such numbers on the hillsides of Thimphu they look like clumps of grass. Your mineral water bottle asks you to drink with respect because the water originates in a sacred mountain spring. And everywhere you go you come across water wheels, temples, monasteries and the Bhutanese version of castles, dzongs: fortresses that, nowadays, have both administrative and religious functions.
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As architectural spectacles, they’re impressive. Thimphu’s dzong, where the king has his offices, is a perfect example of the Bhutanese style, while the great dzong in Punakha, standing at the confluence of two rivers, was the centrepiece of the kingdom’s old capital.
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Bhutan-019Bhutan has many of these buildings, perched in increasingly improbable locations, with the most improbable of all being the Tiger’s Nest.  The country’s standout tourist image, the monastery clings 600 metres up a sheer cliff and marks the point where the nation’s greatest saint meditated in a cave after flying in on a tiger.

And inside the dzongs, and monasteries, and temples (where no photos are allowed) are shrines. The air thick with incense, people bow down before giant statues of Buddha and other key gods and deities, monks chant, and donations, from sacred cakes made of cornflower to big piles of cash, accumulate as visitors bless themselves with divine water.

Being a tourist, sitting cross-legged on the boarded floors watching it all go on around you, is humbling enough. But some of the monasteries serve a more important, if more prosaic, function.

Bhutan, you see, has no social services and a great many orphans. And it is the monasteries that provide the only safety net.There, they are schooled in the arts, crafts and sciences needed for the monastic life or, if they so choose, life in the greater world.

In a kingdom where, like its national animal, everything’s just that little bit different, it ought to be hard to tell what’s going to stay with you.But it isn’t. When you’ve watched five-year old children, half-asleep, with their Transformers pyjamas peeking through their robes, bang drums and chant as they look out of the window at the rising sun, you know you’ve seen something you’ll never forget.

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Note: The Dechen Phodrang Monastic School, where some of the pictures were taken, is looking for volunteers. They need people to help teach the children English and, if they can find the funding, IT skills (yes, Bhutan has computers). If you fancy taking a rather dramatic (but rewarding) leap from the rat race drop me a comment and I’ll pass you the details.