Julia Horton traveled with Druk Asia in November 2010. She attended the Black Neck Crane Festival in Gangtey and completed the Druk Path Trek. Her writing was published in Geographical, CNNGo and Asian Geographic among others. We reproduce her article, which published on Scotman on Sunday here. Julia Horton can be contacted at email@example.com or visit her website.
21 May 2011
This is the strangest karaoke I’ve ever experienced. There is very little bad singing, a lot of dancing and I am never really encouraged to get up on stage. It’s not because they already know how terrible I am; no one else is dragged up either. Instead, several immaculately turned-out girls pester my friendly guide and driver, and any other man they can find, to pay them to do a dance, or maybe a song. They are professionals, employed by the club to urge people to spend their cash on someone else’s talented performance, instead of either humiliating themselves or showing off. There is a token boy too, for the numerous song-and-dance routines requiring couples to beam at each other while making declarations of love. At least I’m guessing that’s what they’re about. This is karaoke Bhutanese-style.
Bhutan is a land of vast contrasts and occasional surprises. Karaoke definitely wasn’t what I was expecting to be watching in the city of Paro, where I am staying at the luxurious Uma Paro Hotel before starting a camping trek into some of the most remote mountains on earth. Hikers visit Bhutan for the opportunity to explore the majestic Himalayas without the crowds that mob the trails of nearby Nepal. The Snowman Trek, reputedly the world’s toughest, is an epic 30-day journey through extreme mountainous wilderness which can easily become abominable in bad weather.
I am doing the weeklong Druk Path, which is still challenging, reaching altitudes of more than 4,000m and passing through wild terrain where nomadic yak herders endure sub-zero winters. On our first night we camp in a clearing at about 3,000m, beneath the isolated monastery of Jili Dzong. As darkness falls the hypnotic, soothing sounds of monks at prayer drift down, mingling with the bells of the pack horses carrying all our gear and supplies. After a stiff climb through pine forests, gaining more than 1,000m in altitude to get here, I am looking forward to dinner. To my amazement it is a three-course affair, served in a tent complete with table and chairs.
Breakfast is even more surreal, as the trek crew move the dining furniture outside so that the only other trekker in our party, a Singaporean civil servant, and I can enjoy a full English while admiring the snow that dusts surrounding mountaintops. On our way out we visit the dzong, unexpectedly spying a tape player that was broadcasting last night’s prayers. Inside is a dazzling array of colourful offerings with fake flowers, banknotes, apples and rice cakes piled high at the altar, behind which are vast, vivid paintings depicting various buddhas. There are butter lamps everywhere, made by the 13 young monks who are currently living here for the nine years it takes to complete their religious training.
The land has a desolate beauty, brightened occasionally by the brilliant blue flash of a pheasant flying low to the ground. It gets progressively chillier as we climb higher and although fires are officially banned to protect the environment, they are still lit in winter months by trekking groups desperate for warmth. I am so cold at times that when the cook appears in the dining tent with a large bowl of fresh popcorn one afternoon I wonder if I’m hallucinating. Sitting huddled together under starry night skies, we swap stories and share sweets and nips of alcohol to fend off the chill.
One morning I catch my breath as I spot a paw print, large and clear in the mud by still mountain lake just metres from my tent. I’m sure it wasn’t there when we set up camp last night. Could it be a tiger, or a leopard? Er, no, the guides and cook all inform me when I point it out excitedly, a passing nomad’s dog made it. Never mind. That’s what happens when you watch too many wildlife documentaries. Bhutan was recently dubbed "the Land of the Lost Tiger" in a BBC documentary series which found evidence of the majestic creatures living high up here in the Himalayas.
Better known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and more recently branded the Land of Gross National Happiness, it is a country of which many people have still never heard. Such ignorance is due partly to a strict policy of insisting that tourist visits must cost a minimum of $200 (£126) per person per day (covering all food, accommodation, transport, guides and activities like trekking). From next year, prices will rise to $250 (£157) per day.
There is no doubting the attractions of Bhutan. Its Buddhist faith is fascinating, with countless monasteries and colourful prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. There are some tasty foods too, though a strong stomach and good teeth are sometimes necessary. The national dish is chillies in cheese sauce, with chillies as the main vegetable and not just as seasoning. Dried yak’s cheese, sold in little squares hung on string in the markets, is a bad idea in my experience. After three long hours of politely persevering - imagine chewing a plastic gobstopper - I finally finish one piece, nearly breaking a tooth in the process. I still leave happy though.
Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) flies to Kathmandu from Edinburgh (via London and Delhi) from £646 return. Onward return flights with Druk Air to Paro from Kathmandu start from $460 (£289) Trips to Bhutan cost a minimum of $200 (£126) per person per day. For details contact Bhutan travel specialist Druk Asia (+65 6338 9909, www.drukasia.com)
A double room at the five-star Uma Paro Hotel, Paro, costs an additional $330 (£207) per room including breakfast (+975 827 1597, www.uma.paro.como.bz