The centre of Thimphu town lies in a flat river valley but you can't go far before you hit the hills again. And as you might expect for any city with hills, there's always a favourite viewpoint where tourists go to look down on the town. On our first day in Thimphu we were told that we could get a good sense of the lay of the land by going up to the Sangaygang Transmission Tower which provides the city with the Bhutanese Broadcasting Service's programming and can be found in the Mothithang district of the city.
Our driver set off to wind up the hairpins, climbing to a final elevation 2865m. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting but it was probably some kind of official viewing point – maybe even a small tower to climb up and take photographs. So we were a bit surprised when we came to the end of the road and found barbed wire fencing and 'keep out' signs. Don't think, as I did, that a trip to the television tower actually means a trip to the television tower – it's a trip to the car park just outside the compound where the television tower is located.
Once the disappointment of not climbing a tower was out of the way, we focused on having a good look at what there was to see. You don't unfortunately get the whole of Thimphu because you can't see the side of the hill that's blocked by the BBS but you do get a good view of about half of the city. In particular you can see across the valley to the location where the Fifth King's new residence is being built – a lovely spot where he should be able to sit on the patio with a glass of beer and look down on his city although it looked a bit of a lonely spot tucked into a clearing surrounded by heavy forestation.
We also watched building work going on in the valley directly below us where a major construction project was taking place to build homes for the parliament's new MPs. One of the major changes brought about by the Fourth King was the introduction of the country's first democratic elections in March 2008 in which 47 new members of parliament were elected. It's not likely to be a particularly dynamic parliament with 45 of the MPs from the same party and just two from the opposition so I wasn't surprised when I read that they've been banned from taking laptops into the chamber because several had been caught playing computer games when the assembly was in session. However, in a country where it can take all day to travel just 60 miles or so, many of the MPs represent constituencies that are 3 days drive away so all have to be given new homes. From the hillside it looks like a super-luxury housing estate of matching villas – each has to be as grand as the next so there can be no favouritism. It's a stark contrast to the shacks and tents of the Bengali building workers propped up along the edge of the building zone.
All around the Transmission tower the hillside is decorated with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. It's not clear if these are to bless the city or to ensure uninterrupted TV transmission. In an attempt to preserve local heritage and keep its people doing healthy worthwhile activities instead of vegetating in front of the box, Bhutan didn't actually introduce television until 1999 making it the last nation on earth to do so. A few years later the TV was being blamed for a crime wave of unprecedented proportions (still pretty tame by Western standards I'm sure) so maybe the flags are to ward away evil influences. Perhaps going from no TV to 46 channels overnight was a bit too much for anyone to cope with in one go. We chatted about the elections, watched the bulldozers, took a few photos and that was it, visit to the TV tower well and truly completed.
You might be thinking that's not much excitement to justify going up the hill but there's another special attraction on the way back down the hill that's worth a stop, though admittedly not a long one. It's the Takin Preserve, possibly the world's lamest animal experience but also a bit of a giggle.
Thimphu used to have a small zoo focusing on local wildlife until the Fourth King decided that such a place wasn't really in keeping with Buddhist principles. So the zoo was closed and rather than taking the critters off to a field in the middle of nowhere and sending them on their way, it seems they just opened the gates and let them out. After many years of incarceration, some of the animals were unable to adapt to freedom and stayed in the area, wandering around begging for food and causing havoc on the roads of the city. Once it became clear that they had no intention of going quietly on their way, the fences went up again to protect the animals, and the zoo was renamed as the Takin Preserve.
The Takin is an indigenous animal which looks like a combination of a gnu and a musk deer (I admit I didn't come up with that comparison, I was told that's the official simile). Legend says that it was created by Lama Drukpa Kunley, a colourful character of Bhutanese Buddhism who's better known by his nickname of 'The Divine Madman'. It is said that he went to a feast where he ate a whole cow and a whole goat. With a burp, he stuck the head of the goat on the bones of the cow, commanded it to stand up and created the Takin.
In addition to Takin, the reserve has several deer species including reindeers and muntjacs. One of the reindeers had three legs and the muntjacs made us giggle because they're also quite common in the UK where they are best known for the damage they can do to your car if you hit them. If you are hoping for Bengal Tigers and wild elephants, you will be disappointed by the Takin Preserve.
We parked up outside the Preserve and headed in. There's no fee to go and not an enormous amount to see but the preserve is laid out very well with metal walkways around the perimeter and small gaps in the fencing where you can take photographs. The takins weren't playing friendly and stayed well away in the middle of the compound but the muntjacs were happy to come over to us for grass and leaves. Somewhat unnervingly the last part of the walk around the preserve goes right through the middle of a family's farm and we felt we were intruding a bit as we strolled past the chickens and through the main farmyard. Nobody batted an eyelid. The animals had plenty of space, appeared to be well cared for and weren't exhibiting any signs of incarceration stress.
We left the preserve and headed back down the hill, a bit under-whelmed by these two attractions but also quite amused. Can you imagine any other major city where standing on a hill and looking at disabled deers would be a highlight of the city tour? Mind you, at that point we still had the National Library to look forward to – but that's another story!