Paying scant attention to well-intentioned warnings about June not being an ideal month to visit Bhutan, the three of us set off - by land - to see what has been touted as the Last Shangrilla. It was a family reunion of sorts, except that we left the faint-hearted behind. We soon realized that being selective about our traveling companions wasn't an entirely bad idea, for the vertiginous roads leading from Phuntsoling, the border town in southern Bhutan, to Thimpu, the capital, are infested with hairpin bends and are constantly in atrocious states of disrepair. Motion sickness is common, and by the time you reach Thimpu, after having negotiated the occasional tumbling boulder and absorbed a score of drool-worthy views, every bone in your body is crying for a hot-stone bath, a common form of relaxation among the Bhutanese.
Bhutan is a strange country. How else could you explain a country that favors GNH - its citizens' gross national happiness - over the GDP? Or where it hasn't been very long since the country allowed satellite TV and Internet? It's also a recent democracy where the monarch occupies a place of pride in many a household's altar besides being a country where a newspaper headline reads something along the lines of "Is Thimpu an Unsafe City?" following which trickles a story about two muggings - the horror, two muggings! - in the capital. The country is marching toward development, no doubt, but this advancement is marked by caution. This is a country that was actually green before it became fashionable to be so. It, without doubt, is a nation that will not thwart its natural resources for industry.
We were three people with varying tastes for adventure. My sister, a PhD student in the states, was up for anything as long as it didn't involve food. My little cousin, a student at St. Stephen's College, was happy she had finally gotten away from the heat and grime of Delhi; that didn't, however, mean the fresh Bhutan air immediately invigorated her. Many a time, in the beginning, she simply sauntered along to sights, an impassive look on her face, before something totally peculiar - say the SAARC village, a cluster of cottages built for the SAARC convention but now assigned as living quarters to the cabinet ministers - caught her attention. I, on the other hand, have been traveling for the past year and a half. If I stay at a place for more than two months, I think something is terribly wrong. Both these ladies are vegetarian, a choice we were told would only compound our problems by the same detractors who failed to convince us that June was hardly the appropriate time to visit Bhutan. You can, however, be vegetarian and flourish here. Vegans may not get to experience many authentic Bhutanese dishes, as so many of them are flavored with cheese - think cheese potatoes in Kewa Datshi, mushroom with cheese in Shamu Datshi, chilly peppers and cheese in Ema Datshi - but vegetarians in Bhutan get by just fine. In fact, in a spirit of solidarity, I, too, embraced vegetarianism while there, and it didn't really seem like I was making any massive sacrifices.
Thinley, our taxi driver from Phuntsoling to Thimpu, was a red-teethed 50-year-old, whose two-dozen-a-day dolma-popping habit would have been extremely bothersome - for the betel nut isn't exactly kind on your olfactory sense if it's the first time you're smelling it - had it not been for the dexterity with which he procured one dolma after another from a pouch around his waist. Loud chewing punctuated his vivid narrations of folklore and old wives' tales, and he'd adroitly maneuver the wheel with one hand as the other massaged his stomach, meandered toward the pouch and fished out yet another nut. This he did as he unflinchingly traversed a couple of scary curves, overtook a vehicle or two and paid zero regard to the brake pedal. You'd be forgiven for thinking that here was a person whose hand was constantly on his crotch - let's face it: public scratching of the genitalia is so common in South Asia that it doesn't even shock any more - but then he'd retrieve yet another nut, religiously offer us one, laugh at our refusal, make a comment about the smell and repeat the process more than 20 times through the entire journey.
Thimpu, often described as the most unusual capital in the world, is a city oscillating between the contemporary and traditional. This leap into modernity is evidenced by the new expressway, a shiny concrete delight that starts about 25 minutes before you enter the capital and leads into the heart of the town. Just when we thought we could get used to the dividers and the general absence of chaos around us, so different from entering any other South Asian capital, what should we see but a snake slithering across the street. Thinley swerved and let the snake pass while we watched in anticipation. "In Bhutan, we say that the snake come out, wanting to kill itself and be reborn as a man," Thinley said with characteristic know-it-all-ness. "If a man kill snake, the snake reborn a man, but if female kill it, it's reborn as snake," he finished with undisguised glee while my feminist sister in the back seethed.
Shaken but unscathed, we arrived at our guesthouse in Thimpu to see a pristine city retiring for the day. Late-night revelers were returning home, some canoodling in twos and some in groups singing World Cup-themed songs. Our guesthouse, the R'Penjore, was located in the heart of Thimpu, a stone's throw away from the Clock Tower Square, which is choc-a-bloc with fountains, prayer wheels and stores. An energetic young couple run the place, and the Ambient Cafe, the coffee shop on the premises, serves delectable mango shake. The standards of hygiene maintained in the cafÃ©, my difficult cousin pointed out, were par excellence, and the workers used their sanitizers and hand-washes frequently, a habit that deserves kudos.
Our no-frills room was wood-heavy, big, clean and wireless-enabled. Happy, we settled in to catch some soccer, only to realize that the howling of the stray dogs would aurally complement the obnoxious Vuvuzela drone on TV. Be advised that Thimpu and Paro, and all of Bhutan for that matter, love their stray dogs. Packs of dogs roam the streets like they own them, and canine orgies are common. Nothing, however, speaks for the dogs' omnipresence as their constant barking throughout the night - there's no escaping it. Killing these animals wouldn't be in keeping with Bhutan's Buddhist philosophy, so you have to live with it. Earplugs should help. Thankfully, the road journey had tired us out enough to put us to sleep in a little while. Soon, we drifted off, and the trumpet sounds on TV merged with the crying of the dogs, a dog scored a goal while the footballers fought, pounced on one another and fornicated.
Exploring the valley
Thimpu is a small, charming city dotted with buildings that have been constructed in the traditional Bhutanese architecture. The planning that has gone into this valley is better seen on the way to the Semtokha Dzong, an imposing fortress about six kilometers from the city and the kingdom's oldest Dzong. From a vantage point high, high above, we saw that no building was either too big or too small, which Thinley, who had charmed us into rehiring him, attributed to zoning laws. The kind of rampant development and mushrooming of buildings seen in hill stations in India are nonexistent here. No building looks out of place where it is, and no houses are stacked on top of slopes and hills that look too fragile to hold them anyway.
The National Memorial Chorten was built by Queen Phuntsho Choden Wangchuk in memory of her son Jigmee Dorji Wangchuck, the Father of Modern Bhutan, and is one of the most visited structures in Thimpu. While not as majestic as the Tashichho Dzong or the "Fortres