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Off the beaten Himalayan track, Matt Westby finds the reclusive mountain kingdom of Bhutan bursting with spectacular vistas and colourful culture

taktsang palphug monastery also known as tigers nest

IT'S 5.15am and far too early to be up and about. Dawn has yet to break, freezing dew still clings to the grass around my tent and, frankly, I can’t actually see much at all.

Yet as I walk further away from camp, hair stuck up all over the place and eyes as heavy as lead, soaring silhouettes begin to take shape on the nearby skyline and already I know my decision to set the alarm has been a wise one.

Within just a few minutes the darkness dissipates and a row of snow-capped mountains becomes illuminated in a majestic panorama, their dramatically sculpted summits piercing an otherwise unblemished clear morning sky.

I’m standing just a few hundred yards away from the tiny settlement of Jangothang, the starting point of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan’s eight-day Jomolhari Trek, which is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the world’s must-do walks.

Base camp

Jangothang is also known as Jomolhari Base Camp and offers unobstructed views of Bhutan’s third-highest peak. Just next door I can see its sister mountain, Jomolhari II, while a little further along is the picture-perfect Jichu Drakye.

These peaks are not legendary names in Himalayan mountaineering, eclipsed by the likes of Everest, Annapurna and K2, but they are no less monumental and worth a visit.

Where they differ is that while the aforementioned peaks are home to now-famous treks and thousands of visitors each year, tourism at Jomolhari is very much in its infancy. This is largely because Bhutan’s government is keen to protect its natural and built wonders from the rigours of heavy human traffic and consequently imposes a USD250-a-day levy on foreign visitors.

For that money you’re provided with guides, all accommodation, transport and meals, but it has inadvertently made this underdeveloped nation one of the most expensive and exclusive travel destinations on the planet.

As the old adage goes, though: you get what you pay for. While the Everest Base Camp trek and Annapurna Circuit can be overcrowded and lack that feeling of remote seclusion, the Jomolhari Trek is low on footfall and the definition of off the beaten track.

For a start, there are no crammed teahouses or helicopters buzzing around dropping people off and picking others up. Instead, its trails are pristine, you go for days on end without seeing a single building and the feeling of being out in the mountains, away from the hustle and bustle of the world, is absolute. Imagine being the first Westerner into the now popular Khumbu Valley on the Nepalese side of Everest, and that’s the impression you get in the Bhutanese Himalaya.

The scenery, meanwhile, is just as eye-wateringly beautiful as in neighbouring Nepal, India and Pakistan, even though the peaks are as much as one kilometre shorter.

But it’s not just the purity of the outdoors that makes Bhutan, and the Jomolhari Trek in particular, worthwhile. The country is more concerned about the quality of tourism it offers than the quantity of tourists it welcomes, and as a result no luxury is spared, no comfort overlooked.

On my visit with Sakten Tours & Treks I’m the only trekker in my party, yet to look after me I have a guide, a cook, an odd-job man, a horseman and six horses. Throughout they are efficient and hard-working, fussing over me constantly, providing excellent food and are so friendly that by the end of the trip I’m genuinely sad to wave them goodbye.

Making tracks

The trek itself fuses challenging terrain with idyllic vistas to create the richest of mountain experiences.
It starts at a hamlet a short drive north of Paro – the town that’s home to Bhutan’s international airport – with the opening kilometres following the snaking course of the Paro Chhu river.

Jomolhari, which stands 7,314m high, soars into view at the end of the second day but is hidden for much of the third as the route continues up the valley through a corridor of green hills topped with crumbling cliffs of rock.

The mountain reappears at the end of the day and walking into Jangothang it’s a spine-tingling feeling to realise we’re going to be camping right under Jomolhari’s eastern face. It feels a bit like taking a seat in the front row of a cinema, right under the screen, just before the film is about to start.

After my early start on the fourth morning, I climb up a neighbouring peak with my guide, Tshewang, to get an even better view of the range than the one on my dawn sighting, before continuing on the next day past the tranquil Tsophu Lakes and over the Bhonte La pass, the highest point of the trek, at an impressive 4,890m.

The descent down the opposite side goes through a meadow my guide tells me is known to be one of the favoured hunting grounds of the elusive snow leopard. Like countless others, we fail to spot one of these magnificent cats, but two freshly mauled yak carcasses that we pass are ample graphic evidence that they might well be silently watching us.

After dropping out of the meadow and into a valley carved by the Dhumzo Chhu river, we camp by the water’s edge. The next morning we climb back out of the opposite valley, making our way towards and eventually over the trek’s second highest pass, the 4,520m Takhung La. From here we can see Kangchenjunga in neighbouring Tibet, the world’s third-highest mountain, rising in the distant west.
One more final pass the next day gives us our last glimpse of Bhutan’s snow-capped peaks, before we descend for 1,600 knee-crunching metres, out of the mountains and back to Par Chhu river, completing the teardrop shape of our enchanting trek.

A step back in time

I actually flew into Bhutan four days before the start of the trek, partly to acclimatise to the altitude, but also to experience what must be one of the most colourful and untouched cultures still to be found anywhere on the planet.

A small Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between India and Tibet, Bhutan’s doors were only fully opened to the wider world in the 1970s. Consequently landing at Paro still has the feel of being dropped back into the late 19th century.

Admittedly, cars and mobile phones break the illusion, but Bhutan remains a charmingly embryonic nation, and driving through Paro is an experience far, far removed from the polluted and crowded streets of nearby Kathmandu and Kolkata.

Such is the infancy of the infrastructure that tarmac roads are only just being laid, while the towns are so un-urbanised that the dominant feature of most of them is rice paddies. Think of Oxford Street with farmers’ fields behind the shops and that’s pretty much how Paro is structured.

The capital of Bhutan, Thimphu, is home to less than 100,000 people and, although it is expanding at pace, it doesn’t have a single traffic light and is virtually crime-free.

The people are also playing catch-up. There are internet cafes and coffee shops and even the odd bar, yet the majority of people are found not checking Facebook, but instead doing archery, tending to fields or practising their religion.

Religious gems

Observing these peaceful people quietly going about their business is a spectacle in its own right, but Bhutan’s premier cultural attractions are its simply mesmerising religious sites.

Chief among them is the Taktsang Monastery (see lead pic), also known as the Tiger’s Nest. Located just north of Paro and south of the Jomolhari Trek, it first comes into sight from the main access road, an indistinguishable speck of white high up on the hillside.

As you draw closer, the scarcely believable reality that it is a structure built into the rock face dawns, but it is not until you embark on a two-hour hike to the monastery that the true wonder of this remarkable place becomes fully apparent.

You actually climb up above it and then descend back down, emerging from the trees to be greeted by a truly divine view. It looks like a something out of a fantasy movie, but the gold roof, white walls and prayer flags fluttering all around serve as a reminder that you are at one of the epicentres of Buddhism.

Inside, the monastery is a maze of shrines connected by narrow stairways, and the smell of incense fills every nook and cranny. From a balcony on the outer wall, you can look back down to the valley in which the road sits and marvel at how and why the monastery was built in such a dramatic spot.

The Tiger’s Nest is not alone, though, because four hours away by car, perched at the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers, sits the equally impressive Punakha Dzong palace.

Site of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s wedding in 2011 and the country’s former administrative centre, the palace is the second oldest and second biggest dzong in Bhutan.

Within its walls is a network of courtyards, shrines and offices, but the building is best appreciated from a distance of a couple of hundred yards away, where its real splendour and incredible setting can be fully appreciated.

In many ways, it is the perfect microcosm of Bhutan: rich culture and stunning architecture set against a dramatic and truly spectacular landscape.

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