Road to Shangri-la
Stanley Johnson witnesses the coronation of Bhutan's new king
By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Independent Magazine, Saturday 6th December 2008
Click here for The Independent website version.
Last month, a new monarch was crowned in the secretive Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The writer Stanley Johnson was one of a tiny handful of Westerners to receive an invitation. But first he had to get there ...
There were relatively few foreigners present at the coronation last month of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck as Druk Gyalpo, or King of Bhutan, and I am ready to bet that not one of them actually walked 40 miles over the mountains to attend that extraordinary event. But my wife, Jenny, and I did precisely that. Admittedly, we had not planned it that way.
Back in June when we made the arrangements to visit the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the precise date of the coronation was still under discussion. Soothsayers still needed to be consulted and entrails examined. So our aim at the time was simply to trek from Paro (where the plane from Delhi would land) to Thimpu (the capital) and to do some sightseeing once we got there.
The plan was for us to have a couple of days to acclimatise in Paro, before heading off over the mountains. I work at the top of our house in London and Jenny has a study on the ground floor so I e-mailed her the details of the trek.
"I don't think we're going to do any very high-altitude stuff," I wrote, "so I'm sure you'll be OK."
Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. Jenny pinged an e-mail back.
"I see we're camping at 3,750 metres on Day 3. How high is that?"
"Not quite sure of the actual altitude in feet," I replied. "Should be a piece of cake anyway."
Well, some pieces of cake are more edible than others.
Trekking in Bhutan is not like trekking in Nepal. Everything you need is carried on horses, donkeys or mules rather than by porters. To help Jenny and me across the mountains from Paro to Thimpu required the assistance of (a) our guide, Sonam Norbu, an engaging and humorous 25-year-old Bhutanese from the east of the country, (b) one head cook, named Kunzang, (c) one assistant cook, Tashi, (d) one horseman, Tshering, and (e) seven pack animals, namely three horses, three donkeys and one mule.
Jenny and I met our full team, pack animals included, early one morning at the agreed rendezvous. As vantage points go, this was superb. The Paro valley stretched out below us, dominated by the magnificent Paro Dzong.(The dzongs, found throughout Bhutan, are unique Bhutanese fortresses, built in commanding defensive positions and used for both both civil and religious purposes.) For the next hour, as we climbed up through the forest, the image of the dzong down in the valley below grew steadily smaller. Eventually, as the path entered the trees, it passed from our view.
Our travel guide's itinerary had spoken of a "long but not steep" climb for this first day's trekking. "Long" and "steep" are really subjective terms. I have to admit that Jenny and I found the going tough. One might have thought that with seven pack-animals at our disposal we might somehow have managed to grab on to a passing horse's tail. But that's not the way it is. In Bhutan the horses don't accompany you as you climb. Each morning you just walk out of the camp, leaving your team to pack everything up. You don't have to dismantle the tents or even roll up your sleeping bag. That's all done for you. You might have been trekking for two or three hours before you hear the tinkling bell of the lead horse coming up fast behind you.
This is the moment to step aside, unhook your water-bottle and take a deep swig, as the animals pass. Our horseman, Tshering, brings up the rear. The paths over these hills are narrow. To the untutored eye, the way is often not clearly marked, with several options on offer.
I ask Sonam, our guide, how the horses keep to the track.
"They know the way," Sonam replies.
Sometimes, we pass a convoy coming in the opposite direction. Once I noted that the lone horseman had a sling in his hand.
Sonam elaborates: "If the horses go in the wrong direction, the horseman can fire a sling-shot at the lead animal to set it back on the right track."
On the whole, we didn't do much talking that first day. Jenny and I were seriously winded. As the track got steeper and rockier, we found ourselves counting out the paces.
"98 ... 99 ... 100" I would pant. "OK, let's do another hundred before we pause."
By the time we reached a spot of level ground where Tashi had spread out a copious lunch, I was ready to admit – at least to myself – that it would have been advisable to have spent a bit more effort getting into shape before we left London. We could have climbed up to the top of nearby Primrose Hill once or twice, for example.
In many ways, the first day was the worst. Even if we had been fit, it was not easy going. The fact is, with horses the dominant means of transport in these parts, the narrow paths get quite churned up. They can be slippery as well as rocky.
We camped the first night at almost 3,700 metres, just below the 16th-century monastery of Jili Dzong. We might still have been in the 16th century except for the fact that, in the stillness of the evening, we could hear the sounds of a transistor radio, the monks' only contact with the outside world. At that altitude it was seriously cold. The food warmed us up a bit. My notebook records that we had: noodles, pork, broccoli, rice and potato curry, followed by apple custard. But still, that first evening, Jenny and I felt totally exhausted. By 8pm we were inside our tent and tucked up in our sleeping bags. As we lay there, we could hear the voices of our team outside, as dinner was cleared away and the horses hobbled for the night.
"We only hobble the naughty horses," Sunam had explained during supper, "the ones who may lead the others astray."
Jenny had packed some head-torches. We switched them on, like miners' lamps, to study the next day's itinerary. I tried to sound encouraging.
"It's downhill all the way tomorrow."
Jenny was not reassured. "Downhill can be even harder. It can put a tremendous strain on the knees."
"Just lengthen your poles," I advised.
Bhutan is the country that famously has, as its national goal, the pursuit not of ever-increasing Gross National Product (GNP) but of Gross National Happiness (GNH). As we began the second day of our trek from Paro to Thimpu, I began to glimpse the reality behind the slogan. We walked through tiny villages that had never seen a car (there mostly aren't any roads in Bhutan anyway), where quantities of green and red chillies were spread out to dry on the roofs of the houses, and teams of oxen pulled wooden ploughs around the small terraced fields. We came to a water-mill where the wheat was being ground into flour. A small boy showed us how the system worked and I wanted to give him a dollar. Sonam gave him a stick of chewing-gum instead. "It will be more use to him," he said.
At a tiny hamlet called Jedika, where we stopped for lunch, the women were washing clothes in the stream below an ever-turning prayer-wheel.
"The water is always turning the wheel. It never stops," Sonam explained.
"Who earns the merits then?" I asked. By then we had been in Bhutan long enough to know that in this deeply Buddhist country the accumulation of merit is a vital consideration – at least if you want to avoid being reincarnated as, say, a dog in the next life.
"The man who built the prayer wheel over the stream earns the merit," Sonam explained.
The sun shone brilliantly that day, as it did throughout the whole of our trek. The scenery was spectacular. Though we were walking down through forests of fir-trees, we almost never lost sight of the distant Himalayan peaks, many of them rising to over 6,000 metres.
Whereas Nepal has been invaded by mountaineers, Sonam explained that Bhutan has closed its mountains to adventurers of every sort.
"Why so?" I asked.
"Out of respect for the gods," Sonam replied as though this was the most obvious thing in the world.
We spent most of our third day climbing once again. That's the way it is in Bhutan. Up 1,000 metres, then down 1,200 metres, then up, say, another 1,250 metres. Late in the afternoon, when we were heading for the camp site at Phajoding, another 16th-century mountain monastery which actually overlooks the Thimpu valley, we saw two golden eagles, circling on the thermals. At one point they soared almost directly above us and I grabbed my camera. I caught a distant image of one of the birds as it powered overhead. I know the resulting photo won't win a prize, but still it means the world to me.
Gross Personal Happiness! That's how I would describe that moment on the mountain pass, as the golden eagles flew overhead with the valley of Thimpu spread out far below and the sun beginning to set on the far mountain peaks.
We spent the last morning walking down to Thimpu. After a while, the conifers gave way to deciduous trees. Can you have a cacophony of colour? I'm not sure, but that's how it felt. The forests were streaked with autumn hues. I shall never forget the pink bloom of the Himalayan-cherry trees we saw that morning on our way down.
Around two o'clock that afternoon, when we had reached more or less level ground and the horses were being unloaded for the last time, I learnt some astonishing news. The Bhutanese authorities, who keep a close track of all visitors to this mountain kingdom, had apparently spotted my name on some list and while we were up in the mountains had decided that I was to be issued with a press invitation to the coronation.
Our tour had been arranged by Choki Dorji of Blue Poppy Tours and Treks; his English wife, Naomi, came out in person to the mustering point on the outskirts of Thimpu to inform us of the sudden change in plans.
"The Prime Minister is holding a press conference this afternoon at three o'clock and you're expected to attend. The coronation itself is actually going to take place tomorrow in Thimpu Dzong."
I have to admit that I reacted to this development with mixed emotions. On the one hand I was delighted to be issued with a press pass to what would undoubtedly be a unique event. Though King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, King Jigme Khesar's father, had stepped aside in 2006, the hand-over would not be complete until this week's ceremonies were over. We couldn't have timed our arrival better.
On the other hand, I had absolutely nothing suitable to wear. Apart from a pair of black leather shoes that I had thrown into my case at the last moment, trekking gear was all I had.
"Can I buy a suit in town?" I asked Naomi.
Naomi looked doubtful. "The Bhutanese don't do suits, and even if they did, I am not sure they would have one to fit you."
There was no time to sort out the problem that afternoon. While Jenny went to the hotel, I went to the Prime Minister's press conference. Though a fair number of Bhutanese journalists were present, as far as I could see the international contingent consisted of Reuters' New Delhi correspondent, a German lady from Glamour magazine, and me.
Sitting in the second row of the stalls, I was able to observe the Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigme Y Thinley at close quarters. Though Prime Minister Lyonchhen has vast experience of Bhutanese politics, he has actually only been in his present job since March this year when Bhutan's new constitution came into force.
His reverence for the institution of monarchy was almost palpable. He started by explaining the key role of the previous King, Jigme Singye, the current King's father.
"The King gave us democracy. Democracy has come to Bhutan not by the will of the people, but by the will of the King."
He went on to assert that the new King would be a unifying force: "The King will be the force to ensure the long-term sustainability of democracy."
Someone – was it the lady from Glamour magazine? – asks the Prime Minister how he intends to promote Gross National Happiness in practice.
"Gross National Happiness," replies the PM, "is never far from our minds. With every project we undertake, we ask ourselves, will this project enhance the happiness of our people?"
Cynic that I am about much of politics, I none the less found myself engaged at that moment in what Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called "the willing suspension of disbelief". I had seen enough of Bhutan so far – the beauty of the country, the demeanour of the people, the reverence for tradition and the Buddhist way of life, the deep-rooted respect for and veneration of the monarchy – to be ready to concede that the Prime Minister truly, madly, deeply meant what he said.
None of that, of course, helped me in my key dilemma of what to wear at the following day's ceremony where, so the Prime Minister announced, the press would have unique privileges. We would be admitted to a special platform in the courtyard of the great Thimpu Dzong and would have an unrivalled view of the arrival both of the dignatories and of the King himself as he made his way to the throne room. Later in the day, another vantage point had been prepared so that we could witness at close quarters the passage of the royal party across the courtyard to the temple where the ceremony would continue.
Happily, Yeshey Dorji, Bhutan's Foreign Secretary who had been sitting alongside the Prime Minister for the press conference, came to my aid.
As I left the room at the end of the conference, he signalled to an aide, who presented me with a carefully wrapped parcel. "You may find this useful tomorrow," Yeshey Dorji said tactfully.
I have no idea how he knew that I was several sizes larger than the average Bhutanese, but he obviously did. When I got back to the hotel and unwrapped the parcel, I found a magnificent Bhutanese gho, the national dress, first introduced in the 17th century and a must for all formal occasions. All the trimmings were there too: the long white scarf to be worn over the left shoulder, the white shirt with the long sleeves that you fold back on to the outside of the gho, the belt to pull it tight, the long socks to keep the draught off bare legs.
Sonam, our guide, came to the hotel at six o'clock the next morning to help me dress. I didn't begin to understand the subtleties: how much white shirt could be glimpsed at the neck of the gho, how deep the skirt could drop below the knee without giving offence. Was it OK to wear underpants? (I decided it was.)
By 7am I was on the viewing platform in the dzong's courtyard, together with the rest of the press corps. We watched as Pratibha Patil, the President of India, arrived, followed by Sonia Gandhi, president of India's Congress party. Next came the ancillary royals, notably King Jigme Singye's four wives, all sisters. (Apparently, a fifth sister was also invited to become his wife, but she politely declined the honour.) At 8.30am there was an extra stir of excitement as the young King, Harvard and Oxford-educated, took his seat on the dais next to his father.
I looked at King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck sitting on his throne, surrounded by his family and courtiers. I took in the staggering beauty of the setting: the trumpeters on the roof of the dzong, the giant tapestry, or thondril, hanging from the tower in the middle of the courtyard. I watched the masked dancers perform their rituals before Their Majesties. A line from Hamlet came into my mind as I watched. "There's such divinity doth hedge a king..." I have to admit that I couldn't help thinking at that moment that Shakespeare had got it right.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was only 16 when he acceded to the throne in 1972 and only 52 when he handed over to his son. Jigme Khesar, the new King or Druk Galyo, is only 28, still unmarried. Who can tell when the next coronation will be? It might be half a century from now.
Will Bhutan, that magical mountain kingdom, the Shangri-la archetype, still be the same 50 years hence? Will it have managed to retain the qualities that make it unique among the nations of the world? Will the pursuit of Gross National Happiness remain the official goal?
Though sandwiched between those giants of our time, India and China, Bhutan, with barely 700,000 people, has so far miraculously managed to retain its own unique identity. Will it continue to do so?
From what I have seen I am sure that, under the constitution developed and sponsored by his revered father, the new King's government and parliament, and indeed the vast majority of the Bhutanese themselves, will do their level best to ensure that this is the case.
And if in the end they don't succeed, it will – I suspect – not be through their own fault. It will be a result of global forces, largely beyond their control. Bhutan versus the Rest of the World? I know which side I'm on.
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