Monday 30 March 2015


Here’s how trekking works for me: I get the map out and scribble down the times it takes to get from place to place. Then I set out to smash them. A seven-day hike in four days. No guide, no porter. Ten kilos on my back. Man on a mission.

I just don’t know what the mission is.

I soak it all up on the way. I look around, take the odd picture. Pause to marvel at butterflies, stare up and around at the wonder of my surroundings. Get slapped in the face by the view when a peak appears out of nowhere. But I walk fast, climb fast.

“It’s not a race,” I keep telling myself.

But it is.

I start at Nayapul, seething with contempt for my fellow trekkers. The place is a palette of obnoxious colours, everyone bedecked in their North Farce jackets. Most are in groups, Nepali porters carrying up to 100 kilos of their baggage at a time. My blood boils.

They’re soon in my dust. I stop to drink water, chat to some Chinese guys and realise what I’m missing: the camaraderie, meeting new people, the shared adventure. But time is short and this is meditation for me. An hour later, up through the valley in glorious sunshine, I reach the small cluster of restaurants and guesthouses at Hile.

“Is this Heil?” I ask.
“No, it is Hilly,” comes the reply.

Of course it is.

I lunch with two American girls who are plodding their way up to Annapurna Base Camp. We’ve all ordered chicken noodles and they’re a long time coming. A cockerel that has been crowing for the last half an hour suddenly falls silent.

After lunch comes an assault on the stone steps up to Ulleri. This is relentless torture, no matter how fit you are. I feel a few spots of rain and a storm rumbles somewhere out over the mountains. I haven’t even thought about the weather, let alone prepared for it. I reach the top in a heart and lung busting hour, calves and quads on fire. At the first sign of shelter, it begins to piss down. I order a sweet tea, change out of my sweaty shirt and hang out with a new friend who shudders every time the sky cracks.

It clears an hour and a half later and the two American girls appear from the top of the steps, wet but smiling. I push on to Banthanti and stop at the last guesthouse in town, plans to reach Ghorepani scuppered by the weather. After a shower I warm myself by the fire as a lone Japanese man dries his socks. We don’t share any words, he and I, just smiles and a cold beer.

I’m out of the door at sunrise, and at Ghorepani for breakfast. It’s an hour's hike up stone steps to the vantage point of Poon Hill, but I go the wrong way and walk for ninety pointless minutes instead. I enjoy spectacular scenery and solitude but am angered by my mistake, and grapple with it.

When I do make it up Poon Hill, the view is completely obscured by cloud. I meet three Canadians up there who have just trekked the Annapurna Circuit. Everything happens for a reason. After lunch I press on again, and just as I am turning out of town, the two American girls home into view again.

The climb up to the Deurali pass is another toughie, through splendid rhododendron forests with just birdsong and an occasionally buzzing fly for company. At the top, the cloud is rolling in as though it is being slowly exhaled by something, and I take food and water in an empty hut.

I’m through Ban Thanti (as opposed to Banthanti, different place) at around four, ready to kick on when the rain comes. Down here in the valley, rainforest all around, moss and moisture in every breath, I decide to cash in for the night. I’m the only trekker staying in the village, and the sole entertainment comes when a buffalo is slaughtered somewhere and my hosts set about butchering their share of the meat and drying it around the fire.

I’m striding out towards my third night sleeping in my clothes on a thin foam mattress, defecating in a hole in the ground fifty yards away, and “showering” in water dripped through a plastic bag with holes in it. There is no flat ground here, just Nepali Flat: infinite ups and downs. But it is easier now and I am ready to make some serious time.

Which is when I move to overtake a group of German medical students, but end up talking to them instead. We stop to look at a monkey up a tree. Something is dripping on us. It isn’t rain. If birdshit is lucky, what’s monkey piss?

They’re getting a jeep back to Pokhara in the afternoon, while I am pressing on. Over lunch the rain comes again. At the signpost to Landruk, I have to decide between dropping down into the valley and trekking for another day on my own, or joining them in the ride back to town.

Decisions this stark are hard to make. They stand around waiting for mine. I stand around hoping for a clap of thunder to make it for me.

In the back of the jeep I am tearing myself apart trying to understand the choice I made. Have I quit on the trek, or just chosen a better path? What part of the experience led me to end it, or have I been guided by some silent epiphany?

It was the summer of 1988 and I was ten years old: our first holiday to Italy. The clearest memory of that trip is of my sister and I turning around in the back seats of the Volvo, staring through the rear window to prolong our last glimpse of the land left behind. I remember the teary-eyed look we exchanged, the sentiment we secretly shared.

Bouncing around the rear of the jeep with six enormous rucksacks, staring back up the valley at the imperious Machhapuchhre, resplendent in the fading sun, I felt the same thing. That some invisible and unbreakable thread now connected me to that place and knowing, for certain, absolutely and inevitably, that I would return.

I didn’t know it when I set out, but this wasn’t so much a trek as a sortie. Reconnaissance.

You might not get what you came for, but you always leave with something.

Sunday 29 March 2015

Photography as Theft

I'm always conscious of the voyeurism inherent in any foreign travel. I find it discomforting and try to avoid it whenever I can. You want to respect people and the lives they lead, not gawp in wonder or shove cameras in their faces. This is not a zoo, and they are not animals.

Nepali people are remarkably open and friendly. If you ask them if they mind having their photograph taken they will probably smile and assent. Most of them are a lot poorer than you, and some might ask for a little money in exchange for their photo. But probably not.

Sat down by the lakeside in Pokhara last night, I watched two women row a boat full of firewood across the water. When they finally arrived on the shore, they were struggling with the heavy, awkward bundles. I wondered about offering to help them, but genuinely figured that they were probably a lot stronger than me anyway, and might not appreciate the offer. What it never occurred to me to do, was this:

I was filled with fury watching these guys, shamelessly, without asking, shoving their cameras in the face of this woman as she went about the arduous task of trying to make a living for herself. Perhaps I am being over sensitive or dramatic, but to me this is reducing her to a lesser being. Something to steal the image of and use for your own narcissistic or commercial purposes. It is theft.

There is no skill to taking these pictures. No sympathy or understanding of your subject; no humanity. Not only that, but a good photographer, even one who was an arsehole like these guys, would feel and anticipate what was happening around him. He'd figure that after stripping the bundles of wood, they'd probably be hoisting them on to their backs and walking off along the shoreline, the sun setting behind them. He'd know that this would be the better photograph and would wait.

These dickheads were long gone when that happened, probably shoving their lenses in the face of some amputee or orphaned baby. I can only hope that some terrible incident befell them before they got to upload their "work" to flickr or wherever.

Later on I saw the photo I took of the Chinese people next to me on the plane and wondered if what I had done was any different. I decided it was.

Welcome to Pokhara

I woke at 4:30am this morning and Paro airport was still in darkness when I checked in for my flight out of Bhutan. As the lights eventually flickered into life around 6am, cleaners and airport workers appeared from their shadowy sleep on the seats and benches.

I was flying to Kathmandu, and weather conditions at both ends make take off times a guess at best. When we did get in the air an hour or so late, I had a prime spot on the right hand side as we banked and rolled our way up through the foothills.

Chinese people seem to take on a collective persona when they travel en masse, as though they are one giant being, like a flock of birds chirping and gesturing together in some secret exchange. The two next to me were jabbering away like crazy, then suddenly fell silent. I couldn’t help taking this photograph when I realised why.

I wish they’d stayed that way.

We were soon up above the clouds, floating across a sea of freshly whipped, silky meringue. I knew what was coming, but that didn’t make it any less magical when it did and to glimpse a thing so iconic, that has challenged and vanquished so many men, its greatness beyond all of them, was actually quite emotional.

Or it was until the creature to my left leant across me, sticking a smartphone to the window, her breath reeking of fresh vomit. I offered to take a picture for her, and she expressed tremendous gratitude before coughing and sneezing in my direction for the rest of the flight. Probably my penance for the stolen selfie.

Flying into Kathmandu, you see how vast it is. A place that massive, it’s no wonder the international and domestic terminals are so fucking far apart, and I lugged my heavy bags past the taxis and non functioning ATM machines, suddenly and disastrously overdressed with moist jeans sticking to my legs and sweat puddling in every recess.

Via a pathway strewn with the now familiar array of fresh animal turds, I arrived at the domestic terminal. A greater clusterfuck of an airport building you will not find anywhere in the world. This is the entrance:

I went through “security”. No body scanners here, just a dirty curtain and a half-arsed molestation. The other side of the curtain is hell on earth for the tired and sweaty traveller. With no rupees, I get fleeced ten bucks for a coffee and a “chicken club sandwich.” I negotiate a refund on the sandwich on the grounds that no one who worked there could identify any of the ingredients. I am micrometres away from losing my shit and only sheer exhaustion stops me.

Needing to calm down, I miraculously found a seat. Across from me sat an Indian woman, giant rolls of fat flopping out from the folds of her flowery sari like over proved dough. Beyond her, impossibly young looking gap year students were grouped on the floor playing Uno! for long periods of concentrated silence, broken by sudden screams of frenzied excitement. Cadaverous white calves were framed between clean hiking boots and fake north face pants, unzipped at the knee. A fat man wearing some sort of woggle round his neck shopped for chocolate bars, looking like a disgraced Akela who has (unsurpsisingly) lost his boy scouts.

The incessant hum of Nepalese, Hindi and English mingled with a voice over the tannoy that could have been in any language. Or possibly the microphone had just been left next to a badly tuned radio. In case you didn’t understand these announcements (you didn’t), a guy in a hi-vis vest prowled around shouting them as well, only slightly less intelligibly.

In my delirium, I think for a moment that I am playing chess with a Japanese man I met several years ago in the middle of the forest in Kamikochi. I’m not. I think I hear my flight being called and my head jolts upright.

The Yeti Airlines flight to Pokhara was surreal. People wandered out to a bus, which took us to a plane that was basically just another bus, but with wings. I sat in a single seat, hand luggage on my lap, upon which I resignedly slumped my heavy head. There was a lot of excitement about the view from the other side of the plane, but I’d seen enough for one day. The landing was spectacular though, turning a sharp right over the outskirts of town and almost scraping the satellite dishes as we immediately dropped onto the narrow runway.

In so far as it differed from Kathmandu, I took an immediate shine to Pokhara, not least when my hold baggage was the first to be handed through the open window for collection. I got into the nearest taxi, and the requested fare exactly matched my refund from the club sandwich debacle. All the rupees I had in the world.

It all seemed too good to be true, and for a minute I thought I’d just fallen asleep in the pitch black of Paro airport and dreamt the whole fucking thing.

I hadn't.

Saturday 28 March 2015

Bhutan: Lhakhangs, Goembas and Dzongs

The Lonely Planet doesn’t warn you of it. No doctor or pharmacist can alleviate its symptoms. Like the common cold, you know it’s coming, but can’t avoid it. If you’ve travelled anywhere in Asia, you will surely have been struck down by it at some stage. It can even be fatal.

Temple Fatigue.

I’ve been to a lot of temples in Bhutan. Some are Lhakhangs in their own right; others are inside monasteries and forts. It is testament to their intrigue that I have not remotely tired of them - if anything they got more interesting as the week went on and I began to grasp the players and stories.

Gangte Goemba
Each has its own unique charm and character; from walls blackened by burning butter lamps, to perfect indentations in the wooden floor of a pair of feet, rubbed away by centuries of prostrations. The musty smell, the strange perfumed water, the carvings, paintings, symbols, statues; in every room you taste the tangy sweat of history on your lips.

Many Bhutanese temples have an inner chamber in which some diety or other resides. Most are of a dual nature; dangerous and volatile, but capable of placation and responsive to prayer. No one can enter unless, I’m told, they really need to. And then the door, painted black as a portentous sign of what lies within, might be prised open and the faithful admitted.

You can’t take photographs inside the temples, partly to preserve their sanctity, and it adds to the magic. The experience of visiting them is intensified because the moments are precious and all you can carry away with you is what you see and feel.

The temple at the far end of Punakha Dzong is one of the most amazing rooms I’ve ever entered. Fifty four pillars stretch skyward like the digits of a golden hand, galleries poised on their fingertips. Three huge statues dominate the back wall, and hundreds of tiny ones in boxes line the sides. Murals depicting the life of the Buddha are glued to the walls, and every inch of pillar and wood is intricately carved with mysterious symbols. I spend a long time in here, scanning and sketching, trying to crystallise the image and impression so I might never forget. Photography with the mind as camera.

Outside the temple: shoes on, camera out. In the courtyards the roofs overhang the buildings and create stark lines of light and dark. Red robed monks appear and disappear like mirages, floating across the stone floors. Inside and among the cloisters, the glossy, knotted wooded floors, steep ladders and small windows make me feel like I’m on some old galleon, the Mary Rose perhaps, and I figure that the architecture of pre-modern warfare was the same everywhere. I hang around in the gables like some malevolent bat, or lurk in the shadows, waiting for a scarlet clad monk to ghost past and complete the shot.

Punakha Dzong
Paro Dzong

These are majestic buildings. The Dzongs, or forts, in particular, stamp their authority on the landscape. The base of each regional government, they date from across the ages, and share the same menacing, impenetrable look. They are dotted all over the country, many in the most impossible and inaccessible places.

Tashichho Dzong, Thimpu
It’s not just the incredible architecture of all these buildings, the detail of the carvings and paintings, but their locations too. The hike up to Tango Goemba in the Thimpu valley was steep and sweaty. Up here among the blue pines, the great canvas of the Himalayas as the backdrop, the daily rituals of life and religion are conducted effortlessly and hypnotically, and climbing up here I feel transported to another time and place. Then the monks pour tea and break out the Danish butter cookies, and transport me back.

Tango Goemba
Some places in the world defy superlatives, and Taktshang Goemba, the highlight of every trip to Bhutan, is one of them. Clinging to the shimmering rock of a sheer cliff face, it looks as if someone has thrown it there and it just stuck. The legend goes that it was anchored in place by the hair of female celestial beings who transported the building materials up the mountain on their backs. But what you actually see is not so old, faithfully rebuilt after the old monastery was gutted by fire.

Wanting to avoid the crowds, Ugyen and I set off early, and were the second people to arrive, hiking up in record time. It was hard going, but worth it, getting to really feel the place without being jostled out of the tiny temples, and taking time to soak up the peculiar atmosphere. Wandering in and out of the temples, up and down stairs, in and out of the rock, it’s almost as though I am inside some organism or living thing. It is extraordinary to look at, and magical to explore; the stuff of pure fairytale. Myth and legend seeps through every crack in the wood and stone.

One hike up here is enough for most people, but having left and descended just as it was starting to get busy, I climbed back, to take pictures in the late afternoon light. It was quiet on the trail, and special again to sit perched on the edge looking across at this magnificent place, waiting for the sun to break from behind a cloud with not a soul to disturb me, just the sound of the birds for company and an occasional distant bell from the monastery as the prayer wheels turned, while dutiful monks incanted prayers and prostrated themselves on the cold timber floors.

Beneath the last building at Tatkshang, through a small crack in the rock, down a tiny, improvised ladder and along a narrow passageway, the butter lamps burn at a small shrine marking the original spot where Guru Rinpoche meditated after flying up the cliff on the back of his consort, transformed into a tigress to carry her master. They say you can see his face etched in rock here. The Tiger’s Nest.

Tatkshang Goema: The Tiger's Nest
Proof, if it were needed, that when man believes in the unthinkable he can create the impossible; and that buried deep inside every living thing you will find the seed from which it sprung.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

As I Walk through the Valley

At three o’clock this afternoon I went for a walk, making my way along the western slope of the Phobjikha valley. I thought I’d walk as far as Domchoe Lhakhang, follow a trail across the marshy floor, climb up to another temple, and loop back to the hotel via the opposite flank. But I was neither sure of where I was going nor committed to this idea. I was just glad to be out there on my own.

I followed the “road” for a while as it ambled through the next village. Traditional Bhutanese houses, wooden and made without a single nail or screw, huddled together, chickens and toddlers playing in the yard. Most of the roofs are simply wooden slats, tied up with bamboo threads and weighed down with rocks.

School had finished for the day and out of the pine forests came little clusters of children. Most waved and said hello, some shirked away shyly or giggled among themselves. Some insisted upon having their photo taken. 

Those that did speak to me all asked the same question:
“Where are you going?”
Good question. Good question. Not knowing the answer, I simply replied:
Which was probably as close to the truth as I could have got if I’d spent a long time thinking about it.

I didn’t find the temple I was looking for, probably because the temple I was looking for looked nothing like the one I was looking for. With the crest of each passing hill I expected to see it, and after about an hour I pronounced that I had passed it long ago. Just then the sun dipped below the ridge, and I reluctantly turned back to retrace my steps. No one likes an out and back walk and I desperately wanted to cross the valley into the sunshine, but lacked a path to follow.

What is a path though, but the means for some creature or other to get from one place to the next? I had already seen the schoolchildren following their own paths, criss-crossing the valley in their unique, expedient ways; individual routes that would carry them home. I looked hard into the distant bottom of the valley, and sure enough there they were, little groups of kids, probably on the trail I had meant to take, but had long since passed.

Without really deciding to, I found myself descending the hillside, sidestepping cow shit, tiptoeing carefully over boggy ground and joyfully leaping a few narrow streams. I emerged from my tangent to cross the main bridge they had all been heading for, and joined them in the steep climb up to the village. As I gained ground I looked back at the river below and the series of tiny oxbow lakes, and realised I had probably been quite lucky to pick a navigable route through them.

At the top I entered a village populated exclusively by cattle. Beyond them on the road some guys were playing darts, hurling their heavy, lethal projectiles at a scrap of wood at least fifty yards away. Buoyed by my earlier off road success, I cut across another field, only to meet an impassable stream and have to trudge back to the dusty road.

Back at the hotel I felt rejuvenated but a little achey, so I went for a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath. A crude wooden tub is filled with cold water and herbs, while rocks are baked on a fire and dropped in to heat the water.

I knew all this, but what I hadn’t appreciated was that it would take place outside. And it is fucking freezing outside.

It was almost dark when I stripped and plunged into the scalding water. And it was another of those moments, travelling, when you suddenly view yourself from a distance and the complete absurdity of your situation overwhelms you with pure and simple joy. Bollock naked, in a wooden bathtub heated by red hot stones, engulfed in steam and smoke from the fire, in the pitch black, freezing cold night, outside a ramshackle farmhouse in a remote valley of an obscure kingdom in the Himalayas. Smiling. Really, truly smiling, inside and out.

Before I went to bed I fired up the Bukhari, or log burner. Swaddled in the covers and extra blankets, I wondered what it is about walking that feels so good for the soul? It is such a simple action; one foot in front of the other. The most basic means of progress for man, and every step leaves some trace, the sum of them a path.

I turned this over in my mind, drifting off down the valley again into sleep, as the fire crackled away and the pan of water bubbled like a giant cauldron, boiling up tomorrow’s spells.

And then in the morning, as if by magic, I remembered this:
For untold thousands of years we travelled on foot over rough paths, not simply as peddlers or commuters or tourists, but as men and women for whom the path and road stood for some intense experience: freedom, new human relationships, a new awareness of the landscape. The road offered a journey into the unknown that could end up allowing us to discover who we were. 

- John Brinckerhoff Jackson

Gross National Buffetness

Want to know what strikes fear into the heart of every food lover, more than any other sight?

This does:


The buffet. Such a dirty word. Boof. Eh. Buff. It. Food cooked in large quantities and kept warm for hours. The opposite of everything that is joyous about food and eating. In Bhutan, it is the accepted means of feeding the tourist. Breakfast lunch and dinner.

This is a crying shame because the real Bhutanese food is great. I guess the tourists are of a certain demographic, and they probably don’t want their taste buds assaulted with chillies. But I do. I want them fucking blitzkrieged. And I want the food that does this to be freshly cooked.

I didn't have any real expectations when I arrived, so lunch on the first day was a pleasant surprise. I ordered the first item in the Bhutanese section of the menu: Beef Pa. What came was slow cooked shin of beef, served with dried red chillies and sliced radish. It tasted every bit as good as it looked. 

Beef Pa
Alongside chilli, the other thing they eat incessantly is cheese. I was expecting a sort of yak's feta, strong and tangy, but more often than not you are getting a strange liquid cheese, the like of which I have never really seen before. On its own it would be uninspiring, but needless to say, it is always accompanied by chillies. Ema Datse, the national dish, is cheese and chilli. Other versions include potato, spinach, mushroom perhaps, but there is always cheese and there is always chilli. Lots of chilli.

After one cold, bland and insipid buffet too many, I started to go off piste, and Ugyen would ring ahead and arrange a la carte options, or I would read up in the Lonely Planet and just piss off on my own. I can't bear going into these places, full of tour groups or couples much older than me, where the table is set for one and my guide and driver are siphoned off into a room out the back to eat real Bhutanese food (where I'd rather be).

I persuaded Ugyen to get one hotel to serve me the same food as him and Chencho, and was rewarded with some dried fish. Whilst I don't exactly hate this stuff, "like" would definitely be too strong a word. The other native dish they bring involves mushrooms and chillies (obviously), and I wolf it down.

Probably the best dish I had was this Phaksha Pa, or cured pork pa, on the left. You might be able to make out a very thin strip of meat attached to the fat. This wasn't there when I came back the next day, and it didn't need to be, because the fat itself is the star, and it is so fucking tasty I could die eating it and not notice. Sweet, salty, smoky and soft, delicate, yet firm enough to bite. It melted in the mouth. That's their ema datse on the right of course. I promise you there's cheese in there somewhere.

Sooner or later though, I need a break from incinerating my mouth and insides at every meal then drinking sweet black tea to calm the inferno. So in Thimpu I went to a western joint and indulged in a fantastically delicious yak burger, washed down with a surprisingly crisp wiessbier. Like all good beers, it benefits from the purity of its main ingredient: water. I could definitely handle a night on the Red Pandas. 

On my last day, I nearly acquiesced and had lunch at another buffet, but on the approach I ditched the politeness and excused myself. Instead I crossed the street to the place I had eaten in the night before, where I devoured some tremendous fried pork momos and felt gluttonous but happy.

There's some truly great food in Bhutan, but most visitors won't even get close to it. They'll be too busy eating Olive Spaghetti or some manky stir fried chicken to even know about the wilted fernheads the boys in the kitchen are tucking into with their bare hands. Ignorance might be bliss, but they can keep it. 

Give me pure unadulterated pork fat, dried yak meat, and chillies in cheese over that shit any day of the week.

Monday 23 March 2015

The Land of the Thunder Dragon

Some places are easy to write about. Bhutan is not one of them. Today is my fifth day in the country and I still don’t know where to begin.

So I’ll start here.

A foreigner enters your country and insults your religious beliefs. He meditates using “girls and wine.” He sets about shagging every virgin he can find, racking up at least a thousand of them. He knocks on your door requesting a room for the night and fucks your wife and daughter while you’re in the kitchen making him dinner. He has sex with his own mother and brags about it.

What do you do? Kill him? Castrate him? Imprison him? Send him back from whence he came?

There is another option: you could worship him as one of your most important saints. Paint a giant penis on your house, or dangle a wooden phallus from the gables in his honour, perhaps. You could, like me, walk across the paddy fields to his temple and get blessed with a bow and arrow and a replica of his ten-inch “Man’s organ.”

Welcome to Bhutan, and meet Drukpa Kunley, aka the Divine Madman. A wandering Lama from Tibet, a sort of Himalayan Rasputin who spread crude and offensive songs and poems, challenged conventional Buddhism, and somehow charmed his way into Bhutanese hearts as a religious and historical hero.

Pre blessed cocks for sale en route to the Madman's Temple
His philandering notwithstanding, he achieved notoriety through a number of supernatural feats, conquering evil spirits and so forth. He chased one particularly troublesome demon until it turned into a dog, then slayed it. The dog was buried at the site of Chimi Lhakhang, the main temple celebrating him; Lhakhang meaning temple, Chimi meaning “There is no dog.” 

I am told such things everywhere we go, and it has taken me until now to realise that I’m not just being bombarded with folk stories and legends by an enthusiastic guide. Rather, these tales of subdued demons, multiple manifestations of gurus flying up mountains on the backs of tigers, of goddesses with twenty-one incarnations, vanquished enemies turned into snow lions, they are Bhutan’s history. Elusive, mysterious and unfathomable, maybe, but history nonetheless.

Most written records have perished over the years in fires or earthquakes, so oral history pervades. Stories, told through generations of families or in monasteries and schools, carry the past forward. Each goemba or lhakhang celebrates some god, goddess, guru, lama or other, and glued onto every inch of their walls are fine cloth paintings depicting great and heroic deeds. Some are faded, some are fresh. The walls themselves are the annals of Bhutanese history; not so much a cogent chronology of events than a shifting set of stories, myths and legends, all woven into the fabric of their unique brand of Buddhism.

Bhutan didn’t open itself up to the rest of the world until the 1960’s and its seclusion has cultivated a highly traditional and deeply religious society. Fifty years ago it was basically still a medieval kingdom; no common currency, telephones, postal service, schools, hospitals or roads. The traditions I see all around me; the houses, dress, the prayer wheels and flags, they belong to a pre-modern society. In corroboration of this statement, I happen upon a group of guys partaking in the national sport: archery. In their tunic like ghos and with wooden bows, I doubt this scene has changed at all in the last thousand years.

The paradox of a modern society emerging from such traditional roots is all around you in Bhutan. Monks chat on mobile phones, or walk down the road with adidas stripes visible under their robes. People take food to the temples, where it is blessed and redistributed among the people. I imagined a sort of ongoing harvest festival, everyone sharing the fruits of their labour, but the food they bring is exclusively junk; bags of crisps, sweets, chewing gum and biscuits.

I met a guy who watched the 1998 World Cup Final on a TV that had to be hidden afterwards in case the police caught them, because televisions were still banned. Ten years later the first democratic elections were being held. Five years after that, everyone is on facebook and twitter.

The pace of change has been rapid over the last fifty years, but economically it doesn’t stack up. The principles behind Gross National Happiness; sustainability, healthcare, education, cultural and environmental preservation are more important than economic growth. A noble concept, but it is being bankrolled from the outside and economic self-reliance would be an equally benign and more fruitful objective.

How will Bhutan embrace modernity? You can’t help wondering how long the adherence to obscure and fantastical religious beliefs, not least as the guiding principles of government policy, will survive. In a country of ever increasing consumerism and rising imports, how strongly can tradition withstand the pervasion of foreign culture, as the outside world creeps into Bhutan over the bandwidth and the airwaves?

Down in the Phobjikha valley, I felt transported in time to a land where cattle grazes, small crops are grown, men play archery, and people traipse across the valley and up the hill to the temple. Mountain streams are diverted to turn the prayer wheels, so the incantations never cease. Prayer flags are yoked to arrow straight pines, aways one hundred and eight of them in clusters across the landscape, in memory of the dead.

Up at the Tiger's Nest monastery there is a stupa said to fulfil your wishes. I circumambulated it three times, all the while praying to Guru Rinpoche, Langchen Pelgi Singye, the Divine Madman, Zhabdrung, Thangtong Gyalpo, the four Cardinal Kings and all the Gods whose names, faces and deeds I have not so much forgotten as never remembered, that the words of the Fourth King of Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon, hold true:
I have no intention to allow technology and money to savage the ageless beauty of this land, its social harmony, the blend of its past, present and future. Bhutan will develop, yes, but the Bhutanese people will keep faith with their traditional human values. They will move to the future as a united people, not as a people divided and disarrayed by ethnic and other hatreds. We are not in a hurry. Time is a friend and an ally. 
His Highness Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 1988

Wednesday 18 March 2015

The worst (but greatest) game you never saw

One of my favourite quotes of all time is from Sir Richard Turnbull, the penultimate Governor of Aden. He once told Labour politician Denis Healey that,
When the British Empire finally sinks beneath the waves, only two monuments will be left standing: the game of association football, and the expression, "Fuck Off."

Like everyone else they came into contact with, the British had a pop at the Bhutanese, but ended up leaving them alone for political reasons. Maybe that's why football has never been Bhutan's forte. In fact, that is something of an understatement, since they are the lowest ranked national side in the world according to FIFA: 209th of 209.

Bhutan didn't play their first international match until 1982, and as recently as 2000 were beaten 20-0 by the mighty Kuwait. They have won four times in their history (62 matches), against Montserrat, Guam, Tibet and Afghanistan. But this year, for the first time, they’re in the qualifying rounds of the FIFA World Cup. Last Thursday, Bhutan upset all the odds by defeating Sri Lanka 1-0 in Colombo. Their shock victory was even reported in the New York Times.

I was on the same flight as the Sri Lankan national team on Sunday morning, and chatting to a few of the players I realised that the return leg was during my stay. I begged and persuaded Ugyen and Chencho to ditch a few "cultural" activities and take me to the game instead. What, after all, could get me closer to a nation's heart than watching them compete in the biggest football match in their history?

This is only the fourth international match to be played in Bhutan. Schools and government offices are closing early so they can make it to the Changlimithang Stadium, as modest and unusual a ground as you are likely to find.

There's a real buzz around town as we walk to the stadium, two hours before kick off. "This place has a lot of history for our people," Ugyen informs me, as we take our seats, "There are dead bodies under the pitch." Indeed, in 1885 it was the site of the final battle of a Civil War and led to the future King, Ugyen Wangchuck, unifying the country. It doesn’t get much more meaningful than that.

The fervour rises as kick off looms. The players of both teams are greeted with wild cheers and screams. As are, surely a first, the match officials. The grandstand overflows with people, squeezed in like a Guinness Book of Records attempt. There is no health and safety gone mad here, quite the opposite; every gangway has been utilised for extra capacity and the toilets and exits are beyond everyone’s reach. With the gates closed, people are climbing trees and scaling walls to gain a vantage point. Down on the pitch the pre match action is restricted to some guy in a gho kicking footballs at a couple of stray dogs. 

When the game finally gets underway I realise that, in the excitement, I have overlooked the standard of football I was about to witness. Both sides were palpably nervous, and the opening minutes reminded me of my first ever match, as a nine year old; twenty kids running around the park in a pack, chasing after the ball wherever it happened to be.

The pattern was broken spectacularly though after five minutes, when Chencho Gyeltshen, the Ronaldo of Bhutan (he has greasy hair), was sent through and coolly flicked over the initially hesitant, then suddenly over committed, but always badly positioned, Sri Lankan keeper. The reaction was predictably jubilant.

The rest of the first half was diabolical, and things were looking bad for Bhutan as the two guys I sat next to on the plane (the Sri Lankan Ronaldos) carved open the home defence time and again, a bundled in corner eventually drawing them level. Bhutanese Ronaldo attempted to equalise directly from the restart, but like most shots, corners and free kicks, his effort sailed hopelessly wide.

I don't know what went round the dressing room at half time, but it was a different Bhutan that emerged from the break, stretching Sri Lanka's woeful defence with purpose if not proficiency. The Sri Lankan Ronaldos went quiet as the altitude began to take effect.

Bhutan re-took the lead on the hour with a brilliant effort, or so we thought. I might have been the first to notice the linesman's flag and as is so often the case, it was NEVER offside. The officials, from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, must have been drafted from the same lowly end of the pool as the two teams. The ref frequently found himself bodychecking players or having the ball ricochet off him, and wasn't even looking when substitutions were made.

"BhutannumbertwentytwoOFF," the guy behind me had been screaming for most of the match. He had a point, but Bhutannumbertwentytwo got the chance to ram those words back down his throat when put through clean on goal. Twice. His woeful misses would have been funny if I hadn’t struck a sneaky little wager on the outcome. The double goal line clearance at the other end was more enjoyable.

An historic and deserved victory was finally sealed in the ninetieth minute. With Sri Lanka pressing hard for the winner they needed to avoid elimination, Bhutan broke quickly and Chencho kept his cool to slot home a second before being engulfed by his teammates. We fought our way through the crowd, me towering above most of them, some staying to celebrate as others scrambled the walls in scenes reminiscent of Escape to Victory.

Before the match, Bhutan’s captain, Karma Shedrup Tshering, had said the squad were not getting carried away:
Everyone was talking about us being at the bottom but we didn’t feel any pressure because you can only go one way from there, and that’s upwards

I would tend to caution that, from 208th in world, you can go back down as well....