Bhutan - No ordinary place
ALISON HORWOOD November 8 2017 Stuff.co.nz
The story about the marauding Himalayan Black Bears didn't come out until they were well into the forest.
Miranda Turner and Gavin Strang, were in Bhutan, a tiny country perched high in the Eastern Himalayan Mountains between its powerful neighbours, China and India. As the Wellington couple hiked through Phobjikha, a remote high-altitude valley of primeval forest, embraced on all sides by mountainous peaks, their guide casually mentioned the threat of bears to people and crops. "Bears," he explained philosophically, "will always go for your face". He made a clawing motion across his mouth and jaw.
"Bhutan is 75 per cent Buddhist – we knew he didn't have a knife in his sock or a rifle on his back because harming animals isn't allowed," says Gavin.
"In Bhutan there's always another hill higher, so we kept trekking – but we began to feel uneasy and wondered about arming ourselves with a stick," says Miranda. "Our guide walked in silence for a while, then told us brightly, 'it's not the bears you have to worry about, it's the tigers'," before launching into a story about tigers so fierce they can toss a cow across a paddock.
It became obvious that Bhutan is no ordinary place.
Steeped in magic and mystery, it's the world's last great Himalayan Kingdom – a picture-book landscape of snowy peaks, Jurassic Park forests, majestic fortress-like dzongs, and centuries-old monasteries. In Bhutan, the rice is red, and chilies are served as a vegetable - not a spice. The kingdom boasts high-altitude hiking trails, beautiful textiles and crafts, spectacular tsechus (dance festivals) and traditional archery competitions that gather an almost medieval-looking audience.
"We have done a lot of travelling in the last 20 years, but Bhutan is not like anywhere we've ever been before," says Gavin. "It is small and serene - and unlike other parts of Asia, there's no bustle, no tooting horns. We saw traditional archery competitions, monks praying and practicing their festival dances – and it's not for the tourists, it's active and it's real."
Bhutan is a land lost in time; a deeply Buddhist nation that holds fast to its ancient ways.
The country coined the phrase 'Gross National Happiness' in the 1970s, and therefore aims for collective happiness, harmonising with nature and its traditional values. By law, at least 60 per cent of the country must remain forested, and not only is Bhutan carbon-neutral – it actually absorbs more carbon than it emits.
To add to the intrigue, the tiny nation is ruled by one of the youngest monarchs in the world, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck - an Oxford University-educated king who is a regular fixture in the society pages of Hello magazine. He's fifth in the line of hereditary rulers who have ruled for the last 100 years – and unlike neighbouring Nepal where the King was deposed nearly ten years ago, monarchs are revered in Bhutan.
"Bhutan is known as the 'Land of Dragons', the king is the 'Dragon King' and the people are the 'Dragon People' – it's like something out of Game Of Thrones," says Gavin.
Tourism numbers are carefully monitored in Bhutan, and all foreigners pay an all-inclusive fee of at least US$250 ($362) a day, which covers food, accommodation, transport and an official guide, plus a portion that goes to the government.
"Our style of travel has always been about doing the research, then getting off the bus and roaming with our backpacks until we find a place to stay," says Miranda. "We've stayed in some interesting places from unexpected luxury to mosquito-ridden dives. In Bhutan the accommodation was excellent – palaces, remote guest houses and four star hotels."
"The experience of travelling with an assigned guide was completely different– but in a good way," adds Gavin. The couple spent most of the day with their guide, who chose their restaurants and accommodation. "If you were on your own you'd think Bhutan was beautiful, but this was more than that – it gave us an understanding of the country and how people live. We would tell him about New Zealand and for once we were the bigger country – more than six times bigger by population."
'WE WORK TO TRAVEL'
When Gavin and Miranda met 27 years ago they made a decision not to get married or have children – but instead spend as much time as they could travelling.
"We work to travel," explains Gavin, a project manager. "We work for four or five years, then rent out the house and spend a year travelling."
The couple, who are regular clients at Adventure Travel on Willis Street in Wellington, estimate they've seen more than 50 countries together.
"People often say 'you're lucky!', but it's not about luck, it's about planning and determination," says Miranda, who is in communications. "It's not an easy option and there are a million reasons to not travel – but you only need one reason to travel."
In the 1990s they lived in London and travelled extensively in Europe. They repatriated home via Egypt, Israel, Jordan and India. In 2004, the couple took off for two years, attending a wedding in India, working in London, then travelled across Europe in a van. In 2010 they traversed Malaysia and China, took the Trans-Mongolian Railway across the Gobi desert to Russia, then went through Lithuania, Crete then to London, before heading to South America.
For both of them, the appeal is both exploration and experience. "For me, it's absolute freedom," says Miranda. "You are a stranger in town, an observer – and everything is new."
Five years ago however, Miranda and Gavin did something that put the brakes on most of their travel - they got their much-loved Border Collie-Lab cross, Remy. "The dog has seriously put the Kibosh on things," laughs Miranda. "So instead of taking off for a year at a time we're now doing shorter trips and bringing in the dog sitter!"
To quell their travel bug when they're stuck at home, Miranda enjoys cooking international cuisine. "If I can't go to the world, I'll bring it to me." For three years she cooked a dish from every country in the world, working her way through alphabetically. Gavin would be handed a dish with, "Tonight we dine in Burkina Faso". Favourites included Equatorial Guinea fowl, and Chinese Peking duck," she says. One of her few purchases in Bhutan was a book of local recipes.
The decision to head to Bhutan was made around Gavin's 50th birthday in September.
"We initially thought of Cuba, but it was hurricane season," says Miranda. Opting instead for Bhutan, they were on-route in Hong Kong and celebrating Gavin's birthday in a Michelin Star restaurant when Hurricane Irma hit Florida, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. "It was a good call to head to Bhutan!" says Gavin.
The couple flew in from Kathmandu to Paro, a beautiful valley 2250m above sea level, which is home to the country's oldest monastery, 7th century Kyichu Lhakang. They ventured across the Vhilela Pass to the Haa Valley and to Punakha, an enthralling place tucked within a mountain realm, and once the capital of Bhutan.
They were driven through the rice terraces and village houses of Nyegngergang, then taken to the high altitude and isolated valley of Phobjikha, the winter habitat of the endangered black-necked cranes. The couple ventured into the capital of Thimphu, which lies in a steep valley at an altitude of 2350m, and watched one of the country's biggest religious festivals, Thimphu Tschechu – which begins on the 10th day of the 8th month on the lunar calendar.
Both Miranda and Gavin agree however the highlight of their Bhutan trip was their climb to Paro Taktsang, or the Tiger's Nest Monastery, which hugs the side of the cliff at an elevation of over 3000m above sea level.
A sacred Buddhist site near Paro that was built in 1692, according to legend it is where Guru Rinopoche (the founder of Tibetan Buddhism) was carried from Tibet to the cliff top site on the back of a tiger – thus giving it its name. "If the Tiger's nest isn't in the top ten places in the world it must be number 11," says Gavin. It took the couple and their guide two hours to ascend, along the way they were passed by men carrying supplies up to the monks, and walked under fluttering rows of prayer flags.
Because Miranda and Gavin travelled to Bhutan at the start of the three-month window between monsoon season and winter, they escaped the crowds, but their view of the Himalayas from the monastery was shrouded in cloud.
When it was time to leave the country a few days later however, they looked out of the plane's window and saw Mt Everest rising out of the clouds.
"Then I looked down," Gavin remembers, "the clouds magically parted and reflected in the evening sun was the vast expanse of the Bengal Delta, where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra meet. It was a fitting end to an amazing trip."