Bhutan Stories and Tips

4WD to Jumolhari - A Bhutan A to Z

J is for Jumolhari Photo, Bhutan, Asia

~F is for Four Wheel Drive ~

The roads of Bhutan are shocking. We were only in the relatively well-developed west of the country but even so we bumped and bounced, swayed and swung for hours to get any where. Take some travel sickness tablets - or buy them locally where they are readily available. We were told that the locals are rotten travellers and spend most journeys being sick so it's not hard to find tablets.

The country is only something like 200 miles from east to west and 100 from north to south - yet a journey from the capital Thimphu to the east of the country can take 3 days or more; it's a bit like the M25 on a Friday. From Thimphu to the border in the south, took us seven and a half hours due partly to the roads not being very good to start with and partly to the already-not-very-good roads having loads of landslips and undergoing patching-up repairs.

Ladies, consider taking a sports bra. Driving in Bhutan is like galloping on a camel!

~ G is for Gho ~

The Gho is the male national dress. It looks a lot like a dressing gown and is tied tightly around the waste to give a big kangaroo-like 'pouch' at the front in which men keep all sorts of handy things. They've no need for rucksacs, they just stuff everything in their gho. The belt which keeps the gho together is tied so tightly that apparently it's not unusual for novices to lose all blood flow to their legs.You aren't allowed to wear trousers with your gho until the snow is knee deep (or something like that - I might be exaggerating) so the standard combination is gho, knee-high socks and smart shoes. Ladies wear an outfit called a kira which is a long wide piece of cloth tied with some kind of origami skills to create a long straight dress-type-thing. I stared at these all week and still couldn't figure out how it was done. It looks good on anyone with a figure like an ironing board but is incompatible with curves.

The gho and kira are not just for 'special occasions' - they are worn all the time. You don't HAVE to wear one but you can't enter a bank, post office, monastery, museum, government building etc. without one so it's really just easier to go with it. Such buildings often have soldiers or policemen on guard but they aren't there to look for terrorists, they are there to make sure you are properly dressed. Thankfully, tourists don't have to dress up.

~ H is for Happiness ~

The fourth king created a concept called Gross National Happiness and frequently said GNH was much more important than GDP. How nice - maybe western leaders could adopt it as a key economic indicator. However, whilst this happiness is clearly evident, it's also very controlled. There seem to be rules about everything in Bhutan and it's hard to imagine a bunch of Bhutanese just letting rip in a spontaneous outpouring of joy.

Until recently there was no television and the government approach to getting people to stop smoking was to stop selling cigarettes and impose 200% import duty on tobacco - another good! There's a bit of an ostrich-like head-in-the-sand approach to preservation of the purity of the culture by not exposing the people to nasty outside influences. However, throughout our trip the sun shone brightly in clear blue skies - that would be enough to keep me pretty happy most of the time.

~I is for India ~

I was going to be for Independence or Isolationism - two key factors in the development of the culture. Bhutan has never been in someone else's empire so you won't find old European buildings or institutions and declining imperial elegance - everything is very Bhutanese. The mountains have enabled Bhutan to maintain a state of splendid isolation but the key factor in keeping this going, has been good relations with their neighbour to the south - i.e. India. A country with a population of 500-700,000 (nobody seems to agree) sandwiched between 1.1 billion Indians and 1.3 billion Chinese (with Tibet as the traditional historic enemy) needs good friends.

In the days of British rule in India, Bhutan made alliances and pacts with the British to keep them friendly. Wikipedia informs me this type of relationship is known as Suzerainty - which just goes to show there are always new words you didn't realise you didn't know. When the British left and independent India became their neighbour, the same sort of pacts and alliances were rewritten - Tippex out Britain, write in India. Mostly it works fairly well. However, there are tensions especially in the South. Keeping Bhutan's crappy roads in a navigable state needs lots of cheap manual labourers and many of these are brought in from West Bengal. They get a limited time work permit, lots of work but a clear message that they aren't welcome to stay. And when some decided they didn't want to leave a few years ago, the fourth king put on his flak jacket, picked up his rifle and marched off to ask them politely but forcibly to leave.

Indian visitors get special treatment in Bhutan in as much as they are exempted from the $200 per night minimum fees that apply to all other tourists and from the requirement to enter or leave the country by air. However, since they are the only visitors who can travel independently, they can find themselves treated as second class visitors because many won't have guides and drivers and the support of a local tour company to arrange letters of permission for getting into a lot of the monasteries.

~ J is for Jumolhari ~

Mount Jumolhari is a beauty. She's the key mountain of western Bhutan and is sometimes known as "the bride of Kangchenjunga" (the third highest mountain in the world). Part of the Himalaya range, Jumolhari straddles the border between Tibet and Bhutan and, like all Bhutanese mountains, is considered sacred. This means that even where a peak could be accessible, protocol insists that nobody should go to the top for fear of upsetting the mountain gods. The three-day trek to Jumolhari base camp is one of Bhutan's most popular and accessible treks - the other really famous one being a 30 day monster-trek called the Snowman Trek which is strictly for really tough walkers and those with deep pockets – remember $200 per day just for being in the country.

Good views of Jumolhari can be found to the west of the second city of Paro - it's a pretty pointy mountain and very photogenic.

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