~ U is for umbrellas ~
We didn't get so much as a sniff of rain but we saw lots of umbrellas - all carried by ladies shielding themselves from the sun. Lest you are tempted to insist that these are parasols and should be under "P is for..." I'll defend myself by saying there was nothing particularly elegant and lacy about these. They were proper brollies.
~ V is for Villages ~
Bhutanese life is village life. The capital city has a population of around 30,000 and the second city around 10,000. In each case the figures include the villages around the city. Neither would get city status in the UK. The rest of the population is spread throughout the country in villages. Life is mostly agrarian - Bhutan is lucky in having good soil, lots of water and plenty of sunshine. The extent of the isolation and the hard life of villagers in Bhutan is hard to imagine. Compared to places like India they can seem quite privileged since almost every family seems to have a large house. Keep in mind though that the 'house' may be home to a lot of animals and storage for all the crops and foodstuffs. In the areas we visited, almost everyone had electricity (thanks to cheap and readily available hydro-power) but in the east of the country there are barely even roads and you can forget most of the staples of normal life like telephones and reliable power supply. On the plus side everywhere is unremittingly gorgeous – but you can't eat gorgeous and gorgeous won't keep you warm in the winter.
~ W is for Water ~
Two aspects to this one. Water - don't drink it! That maxim applies in Bhutan as in every other country in the region. Bottled water is probably pretty cheap - I'm not entirely sure as our guide and driver kept us plied with plenty of it as part of our tour fees.
Where water comes into its own is in the generation of electricity. Bhutan is a major exporter of hydroelectric power to India. Unlike other places I've visited in the region, they aren't short of water or power so you won't have to feel guilty about taking a long shower or leaving the immersion heater on in your hotel room. And since it's 'green' energy, you doubly don't need to feel bad. However, despite having loads of energy, you'll still experience power cuts and in one particular valley we visited, there's only solar energy. This is not because they can't put power into the valley - it's because a rare bird makes its home there for a couple of months each year and they don't want the buzz of power lines to upset the birds. That's very typical of the Bhutanese approach to life – do you want 24 hours a day electricity or would you like to make sure the birds don’t get confused or disoriented?
~ X is for eXtremely eXpensive ~
Here's the rub. There's no way of hiding the fact that Bhutan is bloody expensive. If you go with a group of more than three people, you will have to pay a minimum of $200 per night. For two people - as in our case - it rises to $230 per night and for a single traveller it's $250 per night. In 2009 these costs were set to go up by an additional and eye-watering $50 per night but commonsense and a recognition that the economic factors weren't right for an increase in charges led to second thoughts and a postponement of the increase. You might say that it doesn't sound too unreasonable - people regularly pay that sort of money to stay in swanky resorts but Bhutan doesn't work like that. For your $230 per person per night, you get hotels that probably cost about $10-15 per head, food that runs at about a fiver per day, plus the excellent services of a driver and guide and the use - in our case - of a very nice vehicle. It's not too bad really but when you compare it with what you can get for the money in neighbouring countries, it's a bit steep. $75 of your daily fee goes to the government.
On top of the daily fees, you have to pay for the exhorbitant Druk Air flights (I think ours were about $350 per person ONE-WAY), visa fees, and 10% on top to your tour company. Now you can understand why it's been 12 years since I first fell in love with the idea of visiting Bhutan - this is a place you have to save up to visit.
What's a holiday without shopping though? In this case, a very good idea. Souvenirs and handicrafts are stupidly expensive. Want to buy a length of hand woven fabric? That's going to set you back $2000. OK, it took months to make but sorry, it's ridiculous. Adding insult to injury, an awful lot of the over-priced tourist tat isn't local. Fortunately, having been to Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh, we recognised that a lot of the gear wasn't authentic and would be available over the border when we reached Darjeeling. So our only souvenirs were a couple of cheap T-shirts and some stamps.
~ Y is for Yak ~
Y is always for Yak for me. I love these big hairy beasts. Yaks are high altitude beasts generally found above 5000 m. They are some kind of weird sub-species of cow from what I could make out. They are exceptionally hardy but they don't really like the lowlands - maybe too much oxygen gets them light-headed. Yaks can breed with regular cattle and the offspring are called Zho (if they are boys) and Zhoma (if they are girls). The Zho are infertile but the Zhoma are capable of having little yakky-zholets. Zho(ma) are very hardy so the farmers drag the yaks down to lower altitudes to have their way with their cows and produce hardy little furry critters that are well suited to the cold weather.
~ Z is for Zeppe ~
This is the first holiday I've had that came with a reading list and top of the list of suggested tomes was Jamie Zeppe's book 'Beyond the Sky and the Earth'. Zeppe was one of the early western volunteer teachers, attracted in to Bhutan by the idea of doing 'something different'. Her book is a beautiful story of falling in love with an alien culture (and an alian chap along the way of course). Highly recommended for a taste of what to expect when you visit the country.