Kipat Wilson visits the kingdom of Bhutan, an exclusive and intriguing Himalayan enclave.
Bhutan: roof of the world
Travel's a funny thing. Just when you think the world has become totally Google Mapped and Starbucksified, along comes Bhutan. Tucked away in the mountainous pleats of the Himalayas, this secretive Buddhist kingdom is one of the most intriguing new destinations to hit the holiday map for decades. After cautiously opening up to the outside world - TV only arrived in 1999 - the self-styled "Land of the Thunder Dragon" has been quietly seducing travellers with a taste for uncharted territory. Excellent guides, a fascinating and well-preserved culture and the chance to go trekking on the "Roof of the World" are some attractions. Bhutan also has a whiff of exclusivity and appeals to the rich and famous. The country is home to no less than five hideaway lodges belonging to the luxury hotel group Amanresorts, and difficulty of access, plus the need to get visas well in advance, means the paparazzi rarely catch up. Bhutan certainly takes some finding. Wedged between India and China, the kingdom is similar in size to Switzerland and shares other characteristics: alpine forests, orderliness, healthy living, massive three-storey houses with overhanging roofs - and a passionate love of cheese. Flying in from Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, I feel like I've been invited to some A-list party on the fringes of heaven. There's a posse of maroon-robed monks on board my flight with Druk Air, the Bhutanese national airline, and all the hostesses have beautiful faces like smiling moons. As we fly east there's a grandstand view of the dramatic peaks of the Himalayas - Makalu, Kanchenjunga and the planet-crowning pyramid of Everest, dressed in a dazzling white pashmina of snow. Landing in Paro, Bhutan's sole airport, is, well, exhilarating. "Don't worry if you see mountains closer than you ever thought you'd see them," our pilot announces. Weaving through the hills like a fighter plane, we touch down in an Arcadian landscape of rice terraces, apple orchards and astonishingly clear rivers bordered with willow trees. Almost everyone in Bhutan still wears traditional dress - slim, ankle-length dresses with a silk blouse and short jacket for the ladies, knee-length tartan-patterned robes with long socks and shiny shoes for the men. Everyone is polite and happy, and I feel I've been kidnapped by an extremely nice bunch of Munchkins.
Bhutan only receives around 20,000 tourists a year, and although visitors have been trickling in since the mid-1970s, it's only recently that the doors have really opened. In 2008 the country grabbed the world's attention by staging its first democratic elections and a lavish coronation for its fifth king, the then 28-year-old, Oxford-educated Jigme Kesar Namgyal Wangchuk. Conscious of the ravages tourism has caused elsewhere, the Bhutanese have wisely opted for a "low volume, high value" approach, which means you can only travel here on a pre-arranged itinerary costing a minimum US$200 (Dh734) a day in high season (February to May and August to December). Individuals and couples are also subject to an additional nightly charge of $40 (Dh147) and $30 (Dh110) per person respectively. Just think of it as an all-inclusive country. While the initial outlay might seem steep, once you're here almost everything has already been paid for - meals, guides, transfers, treks - and some very attractive hotels. When I check into Amankora Paro, a sublimely peaceful lodge wrapped in the pine-forested hills bordering Paro, it's clear that Bhutan is the perfect place for romance on a mountain top. There's a roaring bukhari (wood-burning stove) at the end of my king-size bed, a huge bath with sensual potions, and air of serenity that immediately induces a sense of well-being. So what should you do? Get dhzonged. Doubling as both town hall and monastery, dhzongs (massive forts) are an essential sight. The most impressive is in the former capital of Punakha, where 300 monks from age seven pray, study and teach in halls decorated with colourful scenes celebrating the life of Buddha. Another must-see is Thimphu, the capital, which is like no other tourist tour. All its buildings - even the petrol stations - are decorated in a traditional style of auspicious symbols and floral patterns, and while there is no commercial advertising all government posters bear the slogan "In Pursuit of Gross National Happiness". Every visitor makes a pilgrimage to the post office - Bhutan is famous for its weird stamps, and it even brought out one with a mini-CD on it to celebrate the coronation. Then it's down to the archery ground to watch the national sport. In Bhutan the local lads shoot arrows at a target 140 metres away (most of us only manage half that), deliberately standing in front of the bullseye to goad the opposition. Driving back to Paro on a road our guide rightly likens to "a moving snake", I'm captivated by the steep, neck-cricking mountains that follow us like a winding fence. Wisps of mist hang above the pines and lonely monasteries cling to the cliffs, apparently held there by sheer devotion. Stands of prayer flags flutter in the wind, while forbidding-looking valleys appear in the distance like faint brushstrokes on a Chinese scroll painting. The views makes me realise you've not really seen Bhutan until you get into its peaks. That means trekking, and unless you're a reincarnated mountain goat, two to four days is probably enough - if only because it's impossible to predict how you might be affected by altitude sickness. The locals are full of tales of hard-living Bridget Jones-types who yomp to the summit in rainbow leg-warmers while all their gym-bunny mates sporting the latest high-performance kit lie panting in the snow. In my group of seven, there are two women who streak ahead, one who requires an emergency evacuation, while the rest of us settle down to a puffing, wheezing stop-start ascent that is like a marathon session of interval training. Forget the struggle - it is all worth it. With a back-up team of eight guides and 21 ponies, we make a breathtaking climb to almost 4,000m, passing through enchanted forests where jade green lichen hangs from the trees like the wispy beard of a Chinese soothsayer. The trail becomes speckled with snow, then we suddenly emerge onto a broad white plateau near Bumdra monastery that has a ringside view of the peaks of Nepal. A silvery forest of prayer flags crowns the cliff-edge, while shaggy black yaks wander around tinkling their bells. It's a wild and sensational spot to camp, and at night the bright stars and a blazing fire help us ignore the fact that the thermometer will plunge to minus 11°C.
The next morning we awake ahead of the sunrise, pushing fresh snow off the tents to step out and behold clear skies. Being so high up we're above a huge fluffy duvet of cloud that I feel like taking a running jump into - but instead settle for a breakfast of ginger tea and hot porridge with tamarillo. Our descent takes all day. Six hours on winding stony paths, dropping down 1,500m with brief stops to drink in the views and admire Bhutan's most photographed sight, the Tiger's Nest monastery, audaciously built on the side of a sheer cliff. We pass caves filled with tsa tsa, small urns in moulded clay containing the ashes of a loved one, and a site for indulging in Bhutan's homegrown spa treatment, the hot stone bath. At weekends you still see families gathering by the rivers to follow this ancient practice, making fires to heat pebbles that are then plunged into makeshift tubs.
A sophisticated version of this awaits me back at Uma Paro, a five-star retreat that offers a rare and successful mixing of the active and the spiritual. Still in my hiking boots, I'm ushered into a serene bath house with picture window views into the trees. Slipping into a square wooden bath, I soothe my chilled bones and aching calves in the blissfully warm water. Should you want more hot, you just ding a bell and a few more sizzling boulders are plopped in by unseen hands. A signature Como Shambhala massage follows, one whole dreamy hour of aromatic oils and long, wave-like strokes. As I drift into that state of relaxation that only the utterly exhausted can know, I make a mental note to get more mountains into my life - because honestly, they work wonders for body and soul. And as for Bhutan, travelling here is like stepping into a lovely fairy-tale. Just go soon, before the spell breaks.