I took the 1 ¾ hour flight on Druk Air from Delhi to Paro. My guide had insisted when I checked in at Delhi airport that I took a window seat on the left hand side of the aircraft, which I did. As I enjoyed a lovely meal on board, I gazed at the rivers of Assam far below. It was a perfect day with a clear blue sky. On the horizon I could see the Himalaya slowly emerging. Like a line of jagged teeth, their pure white snow-capped enamel peaks glistened in the sun. The mountains got bigger and nearer and before long we had incredible views of Everest. With not a single cloud in the sky, this was the perfect way to see the world's highest mountain.
I was mesmerised by these mountains that stretched far into the horizon. We flew over the ranges and began our descent into the kingdom of Bhutan. This tiny country is surrounded by mountains and valleys. I could see some small houses scattered below but no town of any significant size, let alone an airport. Where were we going to land? Surely a plane of this size wouldn't be able to squeeze through the narrow forested mountain passes? As the plane banked sharply I felt like a bird of prey swooping down to land on a narrow branch, not quite sure whether I would need to abort on the final approach. The pilot expertly did a few last minute twists and turns before touchdown. A look of relief on many passengers' faces and a laughing crew; a typical day at work for them.
I stepped off the plane and looked up at the surrounding mountains, with colourful houses precariously perched on the slopes. Had we really flown in through those narrow gaps? As I took a deep breath of the pure, fresh mountain air, I knew I was going to enjoy this incredible Himalayan Kingdom. Welcome to Bhutan, land of the thunder dragon.
Feeling on Top of the World
The road twists and turns, snaking through the forested mountain slopes. Higher and higher we climb. Occasionally we find ourselves precariously on the edge of a sheer drop as a tinsel strewn painted truck heads towards our vehicle. It squeezes past and we continue our journey. The snow-capped mountains of the Himalaya entice me to take their photo. Should I ask to stop here? No, wait a minute, the view is getting more spectacular. We continue, higher and higher to Dochu La pass. The peak is scattered with colourful prayer flags and stupas. Time to get out and start clicking. I do so time and time again. My guide names each of the peaks. He's seen the view thousands of times but it's good to see that he too is absorbing this visual spectacular.
We continue our journey and descend into the lush green valleys. Waterfalls cascade from high above, some have been ingeniously diverted to power the prayer wheel at the bottom. As we climb again, yaks graze on the verge, heads down, their focus is on grass and not the incredible views that surrounds them.
We stop in a queue of traffic. The road ahead is closed for an hour so that essential repairs after mudslides during the monsoon season can be made. I get out and before long a couple of curious children come and stare. We exchange sign language and they pose for photos. Thank goodness for digital cameras, they laugh as they see themselves on replay. We kick a makeshift football about. There are two mighty explosions and we watch the dust hang in the valley as a chunk of mountain is dynamited out of the way. Cars and trucks start to toot their horns and the road is re-opened. We bounce over the unsurfaced road just as the sun sets.
We arrive in Gangtey in the dark but a warm welcome awaits at my local guest house. We huddle around the wood burning stove and enjoy chicken soup, vegetables and beef. I feel cosy and warm after an incredible journey.
I am feeling guilty. Very guilty. I am the only one staying at my local hotel in Paro and unfortunately the chef has been taken ill, so my guide suggests that I eat in town instead. It's Friday night and also my last night in Bhutan and so I found myself upstairs in a local restaurant in the heart of Paro. I order my last Red Panda beer of the trip. I'm relaxed and looking down onto the shops below. Apart from the odd stray dog barking, the town is quiet. It is a stark contrast from last Friday night when I was partying with my Indian colleagues in a funky Delhi bar.
I look around the checked red table cloths. Apart from my table, the restaurant has been set for a large gathering. My guide explains that nearly all tourists remain in their hotels for dinner whilst the town's restaurants take care of the locals. Tonight is no exception. My Red Panda beer arrives, the smallest bottle they have is 650ml. Oh well, it's Friday night and only a 5am start tomorrow.
Just as I pour my beer, my fellow diners arrive. Monks and lots of them. Twenty in total. I'm caught red handed (or should that be red pandered?) drinking alcohol. I sink into my chair guiltily. I am by the window and can discreetly hide my beer bottle behind the curtain. Have they noticed? How quickly can I consume 650ml of beer? Fortunately they seem engrossed in their own conversations. I sit back and relax and suddenly realise this is what travel is all about; getting under the skin of a country. I feel honoured. I have enjoyed good home cooked food and dined with the locals, the real locals; the monks of Bhutan who are the backbone of this Himalayan Kingdom. A memorable last night.
Farewell Bhutan, I will return.
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