"Would you like to see the paper factory?" our guide asked us as we wandered around the tourist attractions of Thimphu, Bhutan's capital city. He'd clearly realised that all his attempts at the National Library to explain to us what sort of plants were used to make the paper used in the historic volumes had failed completely.
"It's made from Daphne" he said and we looked at him vaguely, with absolutely no idea what or who Daphne was. He tried and failed to explain and eventually realised that, unlike more horticulturally savvy guests, he'd landed himself a pair of ignorant dodos. We were clueless.
And so, heading back to our hotel, the River View, we pulled off the main road and scuttled up a rather rough looking side road and parked up outside a small building with a hand painted sign proclaiming it as the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory. This was no touristic organised tour with guides in uniforms showing you the wonders of industry - instead the two of us and Rinzin, our guide, just wandered in and mooched about the building being pretty much ignored by the staff which was just fine by us.
A group of ladies sat pulling bits of woody fibrous 'stuff' apart whilst chatting and gossiping. Looking at this material we still had no idea what the paper was made from, so Rinzin took us outside to see a large metal pot built into a sort of boiler where the woody stuff was cooked to soften the fibres. We saw a large vat of the material both before and after cooking and still had no idea what it was. Back inside the factory, we watched the paper makers dipping metal mesh frames into large sinks of sludgy water. They scooped water onto the frames, swooshed it back and forth until the bulk of the water drained and then turned the sediment out onto a large block of wet paper sheets. From the block, the sheets were transferred onto hot near-vertical plates for drying. The ladies were sitting close to these plates - clearly they not only dried the paper but kept the ladies warm too. We saw bowls of nasturtium petals which were added to some of the paper for decoration and then moved into the small factory shop where we could see the fuller range of products available.
The shop was selling sheets of paper - of the size of a sheet of wrapping paper - for about £4 a go. They had notebooks in various sizes, writing paper and envelopes, even lampshades. Some paper contained flower petals, others leaves and pieces of fern. Nothing was cheap but all was very charming and authentic but ultimately not very useful. If you've ever tried to write on handmade papers, then you'll know what I mean.
We emerged without spending anything but we were somewhat wiser. The man in the shop knew the translation of daphne and showed us photos of the tree from which the paper is made. Daphne, it turned out, it the botanical name for Mulberry, something that we don't have in England so we felt less guilty for not knowing about it. Clearly it's got more uses than just feeding silk-worms.
As a totally irrelevant aside, I learned when trying to sell raspberry flavours to a major Chinese confectionery firm, that China doesn't have raspberries and mulberries are as close as they get - there you go, my reviews are nothing if not educational!
There was no charge to see the factory, no hard-sell to buy anything, just a nice little visit to see how paper was made everywhere in olden times. I can't help thinking though that I'm glad I can just call the stationery suppliers and get a massive box of photocopy paper any time I need it.