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By Ute Junker
There is no such thing as an ordinary road in Bhutan. Zigzagging up steeply sloping mountains or threading through lush valleys, they traverse scenery that is ever-changing but always spectacular: soaring peaks, forests of rhododendron and pine, sleepy villages and snow-fed rivers. In a hidden Himalayan kingdom, Ute Junker discovers the pleasures of the slow journey.
We are driving slowly, drinking in the view, when a shaggy yak wanders into our path. This sort of thing happens a lot in Bhutan, a tiny mountain kingdom tucked between India and China.
Until 1974, Bhutan was shut off from the world entirely; today it has a policy of ‘High Value, Low Impact Tourism’, aimed at attracting discerning tourists. The government works hard to preserve the customary way of life. By law, buildings must be constructed in traditional style. The vast majority of the population are farmers; most of them still wear traditional dress. Billboards and cigarettes are banned; traffic lights are non-existent. In the capital, Thimpu, uniformed traffic police keep the cars flowing. Elsewhere, drivers take it slowly and treat each other politely. And everyone stops for the yaks.
Our own yak encounter occurs on the way to Phobjike Valley, not far from the spectacular Dochule Pass. Perched at 3,150 metres above sea level, the pass is usually shrouded in cloud. Today, however, the skies are clear and we can admire magnificent views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks. Just as stunning are the 108 white, gold-topped chorten, or Buddhist shrines, which crown the pass.
My guide waits patiently as I snap off one shot after another. By now, he is used to it. I am endlessly stopping to capture such moments: the riotously coloured, Hindu-influenced paintings decorating a temple wall, for instance, or a gaggle of laughing children. Eventually we continue on our journey, following the road through sunny valleys where cherry blossom is in bloom, and up steep slopes where silver fir trees wear coats of rugged moss.
Our destination, the Phobjike Valley, is famous for two things. One is its population of endangered black neck cranes. The other is the lodge known as Amankora Gangtey.
As Bhutan does not allow independent travel, all visitors have to sign up with a registered tour company. The most luxurious option is Amankora, a collection of five lodges run by the prestigious Aman Resorts. Guests design their own itinerary, choosing how long they want to stay in each lodge, and are accompanied throughout their stay by a private car and driver.
With just eight suites, Amankora Gangtey is an intimate, indulgent retreat. It has a panoramic view across the valley, a superb chef and an appealing array of activities. I particularly enjoy a leisurely hike through local villages, rhododendron and pine forests, and across high pastures where nomadic yak herders pitch their tents. We skirt the shallow ponds favoured by the elegant cranes, before visiting one of the mighty dzongs, or fortresses, that stand guard throughout the country.
I am sure Gangtey is going to be my favourite stop on the tour – until, that is, I get to Punakha Valley. The contrast between the two is stark. At Gangtey, I crunched across frost-tipped grass in the morning. Here, just a few hours away, the climate is sub-tropical and mangoes, banana trees and rice paddies flourish. Two snow-fed rivers, the Pho and the Mo Chhu, tumble through the valley. Popular activities include white-water rafting and fishing. Huge trout glide through the crystal-clear water: the devoutly Buddhist Bhutanese refuse to kill any animals, allowing the fish to grow to an immense size.
There is a lot more to see in Bhutan than fish, of course. Each lodge offers a suite of hikes suitable for every fitness level, as well as visits to villages and temples. One of the most colourful is the Temple of the Divine Madman, where priests bless visitors by tapping them on the head with wooden dildoes.
For active types, a visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery is a must. One of Bhutan’s most sacred complexes, it clings vertiginously to a sheer cliff face 900 metres above the valley below. The round trip takes the best part of a day, and the combination of a steep path and thin air makes the going hard, but this is a highlight of any visit.
Cultural activities range from lessons in archery, the national sport of Bhutan, to having your horoscope cast by a Buddhist monk, or participating in a traditional butter-lamp lighting ceremony, which aims to dispel the darkness of ignorance.
Some days, however, it is tempting just to hole up and enjoy the luxurious accommodation, where even the bathtubs have a view. Be sure to sign up for one of the signature experiences offered at each resort: perhaps an atmospheric candlelit dinner in a potato shed, or a decadent hot-stone massage.
The landlocked kingdom of Bhutan is a nation of surprises, breathtaking panoramas and natural wonders, unique architecture and a deeply held reverence for tradition.