Sunday, August 15, 2010

Italy Retrospective--December 2009, January 2010

Leysin, Switzerland, August 25, 2010

I'm just going to post a brief summary of some of the things that Joanne and I saw in our two-part tour of Italy. The first part, visiting Trieste, Aquilea, Venice and Rome (before flying off to Libya), was great fun. We had places to stay in Venice (my friend Manuel lent us his apartment steps from the Ponte Rialto) and Rome (Joanne's cousin), so we had good bases for exploration. The second part was a crazy road trip in a rented Alfa Romeo, flying into Catania from Malta, circling Sicily, then driving up to the Naples area before the long drive back to Joanne's Aunt Severina's house in Friuli.

I had been to Venice twice before, but I had never enjoyed it as much as this time. Having a place to stay, and visiting in the lowest of low seasons, made a huge difference. We didn't go into lots of museums and churches; we'd done that on previous visits. Mostly we wandered around taking pictures and exploring the backstreets, trying to get more of a feel for the city. Having just finished my Silk Road bike trip, I was keen to see Marco Polo's house, but it burned down about 400 years ago and now there's only the site, the Corte di Milione, to see. I loved the colours in the low winter light, especially with the reflections on the water in the lagoons.

Rome was great fun too, armed with a wonderful guidebook to the ancient ruins of the Eternal City. The last time I wandered around Rome, the ruins on the Palatine Hill weren't open, so they were completely new to me. The guidebook pointed me the way to a number of smaller ruins that I hadn't seen before, and helped me visualize the layers upon layers of history that make up the fabric of the city. Joanne loved the photographic opportunities, although she was distinctly unimpressed with the Vatican and the ostentatious wealth displayed by the Roman Catholic church.

After seeing part of the BBC travel series called Francesco's Italy: Top to Toe, we made time for the Galleria Borghese and its extraordinary collection of Baroque sculpture, particularly by Bernini. Sadly, cameras were forbidden inside. If you find yourself in Rome, you really should find time in your schedule for a visit to this gem. I had also hoped to visit the Domus Aurea, the underground rooms of Nero's vast palace that abuts the Colosseum, but we ran out of time. As the roof subsequently collapsed after heavy rain, closing the site for the foreseeable future, I now regret not visiting.

I also, with lots of help with Joanne, finally manage to track down the infamous rubber stamp in my passport, translating the information page into Arabic. You need this in order to get a Libyan visa, and it's almost impossible to find someone who will do this service. I had been searching for this stamp since Sofia, Bulgaria six weeks earlier, and it was just in the nick of time. I picked up my passport from a translation agency one day before we flew to Tripoli to start our Libyan tour, followed by our brief sojourn on Malta.

We returned to Italy in early January, when we flew from Malta to Catania. We had rented a small car over the internet, but when we got to the rental place, Joanne used her charm, blond hair and Italian skills to get us a slightly larger and much better car, an Alfa Romeo, which was our home base for the next two weeks. It also meant that we got to fulfil an old dream of ours, driving through Italy in an Alfa.

The plan was to spin around Sicily before heading north towards Friuli, via the Naples area (Campania), checking out the great classical ruins along the way. Sicily was one of the centres of the Greek world, known as Magna Graecia, and features some of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world.

We started off with a run up to Taormina. It was a tough job finding parking on New Year's Day in this popular resort. The weather was rainy and the scenery and ruins didn't inspire us too much; the peak of Mt. Etna was hidden from view by clouds. It was a pity, as I have a poster of a painting of Taormina by my favourite Hungarian painter, Csontvary, on my wall, and I had had very high hopes of spectacular views. On the drive back south, towards Siracusa, we passed by the offshore islands said to be the rocks hurled by the blinded Cyclops Polyphemus at the fleeing ships of Odysseus.

Siracusa, the ancient Syracuse, was quite nice. Syracuse was one of the largest, most powerful city states in the classical Mediterranean, and its extensive museum is chock-full of wonderful vases, statues and other art. We strolled around the ruined theatre and hippodrome, and drove out of town to see the large-scale walled fortifications that the city erected to ward off a Roman army in the late 3rd century BC. It didn't work, and the city was sacked in 211 BC, with one of the most notable casualties being the greatest Greek mathematician, Archimedes.

The next day, we drove inland from the south coast to visit the wonderful Baroque town of Modica. The town was destroyed in an earthquake in the 18th century and rebuilt in a riot of exuberant Baroque architecture. We saw plenty of wonderful, quirky detail in the balconies that overhang the stone streets of the town centre. It was only afterwards that we realized that we had forgotten to find what is rumoured to be the finest gelateria in all of Italy. We consoled ourselves with some great artisanal chocolate in Ragusa, then drove hell-for-leather towards Piazza Armerina and its extraordinary Roman mosaics, another great tip from Francesco's Italy.

I have seen lots of wonderful Roman and Byzantine mosaics all over the Mediterranean, but this was quite amazing for its scale and conception. The house, which seems to have been an Imperial hunting villa during the 3rd century AD, had floors completely covered with mosaics depicting hunting, and also the capture of live animals for the Roman circus. There are a dozen or more rooms, although some are closed for restoration, and we walked on overhead walkways to look down on the artwork. It was pretty breathtaking stuff, and deserves to be better known, although I'm not sure it could handle many more tourists on its narrow walkways.

We drove west along the coast, ending up in a campground near Agrigento, ancient Akragas. The next day we devoted to the wonderful Valley of the Temples (a strange name, as they sit atop a ridge), one of the best-preserved ensembles of Doric temples anywhere. The Parthenon, for all its fame, can hardly hold a candle to the Greek temples of Sicily and Campania. We started off in the museum, but the real highlight were the three best-preserved temples, which were like a course in the history of Doric architecture. The temple of Juno and the temple of Concordia are remarkably well-preserved, with Concordia almost completely intact thanks to its conversion into a Christian church in AD 597. The ruins of the temple of Zeus are impressive for their sheer scale, although they're hardly standing. Lots of other more fragmentary ruins testify to the size of the city in ancient times. Nowadays the town is apparently better known for its dominance by the Mafia.

That evening, we drove onwards to the next ancient site along the coast, ancient Selinunte. It was the most westerly Greek colony on Sicily; further west was the territory of the Carthaginians, and to the north were the indigenous and slightly mysterious Elymians. It has a wonderful seaside location, and walking among the ancient stones on a sunny day, with a sea breeze, was absolutely magical. The ruins came in two lots: a few enormous temples close to the parking lot, and a more distant ruined city core with a couple of temples. The size of the nearer temples was absolutely colossal, and the sight of the fully reconstructed Temple E, surrounded by the scattered enormous blocks of Temples F and G, was particularly photogenic. I loved the walk between the two sets of ruins, although Joanne rather wished we had taken the little shuttle train.

That same day we had a double-header of great temple ruins, as we headed to Segesta, located on a high plateau inland from the coast. There are really only two ruins of note here in the capital of the Elymians. The Doric temple is magnificent in its setting, even though it was never completed. The hilltop theatre has a magnificent view over the plateau down towards the sea, which would make for a great play-going experience.

From here we drove into the big bad city of Palermo, once one of the great cosmopolitan cities of Europe, especially under the rule of Arab kings and then the Normans, when it was the second largest city in Western Europe after Cordoba. Driving into town was more than a bit hair-raising, and we got lost despite our satellite navigation system. We parked the car and had a wander around the historic centre of the city, past the great Norman Gothic cathedral and the palace. Although the architecture is impressive, much of the centre is falling into ruins, a stark contrast to most of the other cities we had seen on Sicily. The usual explanation for this is that urban renewal money after the war was siphoned off by the Mafia and never reached the centre.

The next morning we visited the cathedral of Monreale, with its exquisite, large-scale mosaics. I loved them, although Joanne found them a bit over the top and too religious. Much of the Bible, both old and new testaments, is depicted in luminous gold, making for an overwhelming impression.

We spent the rest of the day driving east along the north coast, stopping very briefly at Cefalu to take a picture of the pretty coastal town, and then at the fragmentary ruins at Tyndaris. Although situated in a pretty location above the sea, and with an interesting history, the ruins could not really hold a candle to the wonderful series of ruins we'd seen up until then, and we left fairly quickly. Nowadays Tyndaris is better known for a church which attracts hordes of religious pilgrims.

That evening we made it to Messina and, unable to find a campground that was open during the winter, we ended up taking the ferry to the mainland and camping just up the Calabrian coast at Rosarno in perhaps the most beautiful campground of the trip, high above the ocean. Sadly, the next day, just after we had left town for Naples, the city erupted in a four-day race riot orchestrated by the local mob, the 'Ndrangheta, in which the local Italians chased out all the African migrant workers who usually pick fruit and work in factories, doing jobs that Italians refuse to do. The Italian press spent the rest of our time in Italy hand-wringing about what was wrong with Italian society that such an outrageous event could have occurred.

I had imagined that Sicily would be the poorest part of Italy, but I was, Palermo excepted, wrong about this. Instead Calabria looked a lot poorer, and the Naples area was absolutely dismal, with urban and suburban blight wherever we went. The city was a sea of garbage and urban decay, with suburbs that alternated between sad and menacing. We stayed at a campground in Pompeii, well outside the downtown, and after a good night's sleep in our tent, we moved inside to cabins as the heavens opened in a four-day downpour. The only drawback to being warm and dry was that we discovered the cabins were used by local prostitutes to turn tricks, resulting in some interesting late-night background noises.

Our four days of sightseeing were jam-packed with great things to see, although the rain took some of the fun out of photographing what we saw. We began with Pompeii, a place that I had skipped 21 years before in favour of Herculaneum. No place in the world better captures the feeling of a Roman city than these ruins, entombed in ash and mud in AD 79. Almost all the wonderful ruins that I've tramped through over the years have the problem that walls are not left standing to any great height, meaning that most of the city's urban fabric has to be imagined, rather than being seen. Pompeii, buried to quite a depth by the eruption of Vesuvius (a much smaller mountain than I had thought) lets us see the first storey and sometimes even the second storey of Roman houses, complete with frescoes, graffiti and mosaics on the walls. Much of the ruins are, sadly, out of bounds, but enough is open to allow a full impression of a prosperous Roman provincial town frozen in time. I particularly liked the brothel, and the amazing mosaic of Alexander the Great facing the Persian emperor Darius III in battle.

Herculaneum is a much smaller site, but even more deeply buried, allowing for even more detail on the upper stories. I liked Herculaneum a great deal, and the obscure villa, probably belonging to the emperor Nero's family, in Torre Annunziata was a great find. Torre Annunziata itself, however, was one of the most dismal towns I've ever seen, and driving around the back streets, foiled by a one-way street system, we actually felt a little concerned for our own security.

We spent a day in Naples itself. The town looks like a poster child for a failed attempt at civilization, amazing since it was, in the 18th century, one of the great cities of Europe. We walked from the train station and its population of druggies and street crooks to the archaeological museum, one of the great collections of Roman antiquities in the world, rivalling those in Rome itself. Fantastic sculptures everywhere, but the real highlight was the collection of mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii. There's even a Secret Cabinet, where the collection of Roman erotica was kept hidden from Victorian eyes. On the way back to the train station, we ate pizza at the Trianon pizzeria, allegedly the finest in Naples and, by extension, the world. I was skeptical: pizza is pizza, I thought, but I was wrong. It was exquisite, and made up for the misery of the city itself.

Our last day was spent exploring the most northerly of the great Greek ruins of Italy, at Paestum, an hour's drive south of Naples along the coast. Although I thought that the temple at Segesta was the single best temple of the trip because of its hilltop setting, the three large standing temples at Paestum may be the best, or at least the most educational, ensemble that we saw. The temples, all from the 6th century BC, allow the visitor to trace the evolution of the Doric style from its overtly Egyptian early phase, with lotus capitals and swelling, bulbous columns, to the austere, formal perfection of the classic phase. In the museum, we saw very rare Greek wall paintings, from the elaborate local Greek cemeteries. My favourite showed a depiction of death, with a man's soul making a perfect swan dive into the waters of the river Styx.

It was, of course, raining heavily by the time we left, and so our tour of the Amalfi coast was less spectacular than it might have been. I had been skeptical of claims that this stretch of coast, along a peninsula south of Naples, is the most spectacular bit of scenery in Europe, but it did largely live up to its hype. The towering, vertiginous coast, with villages and towns clinging to its cliffs, was stunning and I wish we had had more time and better weather. It's hard to believe nowadays that tiny Amalfi once rivalled Venice, Genoa and Pisa for mastery of the seas in the 10th century.

We drove north, taking advantage of the only clear day in the forecast, all the way to San Vita al Tagliamento and Joanne's aunt's house. We spent a few days resting up, with a couple of side trips by car, up to the mountains of Forni di Sopra, and to Udine, looking for the tomb of the little-known 14th-century traveller Fra Odorico di Pordenone. The church containing it was always closed, but on the last day, I managed to cycle to Pordenone, on my newly rebuilt rear wheel, and see the tomb and its stained glass. Odorico travelled to China about 25 years after Marco Polo's return, and wrote a book about his exploits. He comes across as rather more religiously zealous and credulous than the Venetian, although curiously several of his stories about more outlandish bits of the world are the same as Polo's account.

And then it was time to leave; Joanne to fly back to Canada, and me to ride my bicycle into Venice, to Marco Polo's house. Joanne and Graydon's Excellent Alfa Romeo Tour of Italy had come to an end.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bhutan Retrospective (April 2008)--Land of the Thunder Dragon

Thunder Bay, June 25

I can’t believe that more than two years after visiting Bhutan, one of the least-visited countries in the world, an exotic Himalayan kingdom that had been on my radar screen for over a decade, I still haven’t written anything about the unforgettable ten days I spent there in April, 2008 with Joanne, during the spring Thingyan (Buddhist New Year water festival) break from teaching in Yangon. Now that I have some time on my hands and some inspiration (why have I been so tired for the past two months?), it’s time to remedy that omission.

The two things that most people know about Bhutan, surely one of the world’s more obscure countries, are that it costs $200 a day (minimum) to visit, and that its far-sighted king Jigme Wangchuk has chosen an unorthodox model of development that includes the idea of Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross National Product, as being the best way to measure the well-being of a country. I knew a little more before we went, such as the fact that Bhutan, in stark contrast to many other Himalayan countries, has done an exceptional job of maintaining forest cover, and the fact that there has been an exodus of Nepali-speaking people from Bhutan over the past twenty years to refugee camps in southeastern Nepal, as a result either of Bhutanese discrimination (the refugee’s version of events) or of a crackdown on illegal immigration (the Bhutanese government’s version). However, I still didn’t know much, and I was eager to see what the country looked like as a result of following its own path to development.

Once you accept that visiting Bhutan is going to be expensive (that $200 figure is accurate, with a possible discount down to $160 a day during the monsoon season), it’s pretty straightforward to arrange a visit. Although visitor numbers were kept low for years, the government is now pushing for an increase, and essentially anyone willing to stump up the necessary cash is welcome to come and visit. Joanne and I Googled tour operators in Bhutan, found a few who wrote back quickly, and chose the one that sounded most promising. The nice thing about having to pay so much money is that we got to write our own tour, picking the places that sounded most interesting, and even arranging to split up for three days to do different things (a remote festival for Joanne to photograph while I went hiking). It hurt to part with so much money, but I figured I’d never be so close to Bhutan again with enough cash in my pocket, so I winced and signed up.

Our flight from Yangon to Bangkok was on the slightly dodgy airline Myanmar Airlines International. The aircraft was actually painted in the colours of Bhutan’s Druk Air, with only a tiny MAI logo above the door to show that MAI sometimes leased the plane. We flew in at 9 pm and scooted to a nearby cheap hotel for a few hours of rest. At the truly hideous hour of 2 am, we woke up again and headed back to the airport. To our amazement, the check-in desk at Druk Airways, the Bhutanese national carrier, had a very long lineup, mostly of Indians on shopping trips. Bleary-eyed, we checked in after a long, sleepy hour of waiting and made our way out to the very same plane we had disembarked from 7 hours earlier. Too bad we couldn’t have just slept on the plane overnight!

We flew to Calcutta first, where the Indian shoppers were exchanged for more Western tourists. The approach into Paro airport was as dramatic as we had heard, with the airplane banking in through a deep valley, rather like Luke Skywalker flying in to attack the Death Star. We deplaned onto the tarmac and stood blinking in the sunlight, before taking a few pictures of ourselves with the airplane. The terminal building, like all structures in Bhutan, has to adhere to traditional architectural styles, which meant that the arrival hall, both inside and out, was a rare counterexample to Douglas Adams’ remark that no language on earth contains the expression “as beautiful as an airport”. We were one of the last pairs of tourists to make our way through the immigration queue, where our visas were stuck into our passports and where we met the man who would be our guide for the duration of our visit, Ghalley.

We spent much of the day poking about the town of Paro, and driving (nearly two hours) from Paro to the capital, Thimphu, surely one of the least-known capital cities in the world. All the way Joanne and I had our noses pressed to the glass, trying to see as much as possible and see how reality matched up to the Shangri La tourist brochure image of The Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Paro boasts an impressive dzong, the first of many of the solid, rectangular forts that we would encounter throughout the country. The walls are massively solid, sloping inwards like Lhasa’s Potala, painted white and ochre, while the gently sloping roofs look almost Chinese except for the small gilded spires. Carved wooden balconies hang below some of the upper-floor windows. Photographing it, on the banks of a rushing Himalayan river, with men and women in traditional dress crossing an old prayer-flag-draped suspension bridge in front of it, I felt that I really was in a country with its own rich historical traditions. The dzong, like much of Bhutan’s architecture and religion, is very similar to what you see across the Himalayas in Tibet; the Bhutanese, like the Sherpas in Nepal and other cultures in the Indian Himalayas, are a Tibetan people ethnically, linguistically and religiously. In fact the English word Tibet is said to be a corruption of Bhot, which is also the root of the name Bhutan. The people look quite Tibetan in their features, although with an admixture of the Indian subcontinent in them; looking at my Bhutan photos, the faces almost look Burmese at times.

As we drove around, we noticed that not everyone was wearing the traditional dress (kiri for the women, gho for the men), and Ghalley explained that to work in the tourism or government sectors, or to visit a government office, traditional dress had to be worn, but otherwise it was optional. We saw a number of young people dressed in jeans and leather jackets in downtown Thimphu, trying to look vaguely rebellious. The gho is best described as a checked knee-length dressing gown, worn with knee socks and shirts with huge white cuffs that fold over the sleeves of the gown. The women’s kiri is a floor-length wrap-around skirt, like a Burmese woman’s tamein, worn with a short jacket above.

The country looks relatively clean and extremely uncrowded by the standards of the region; with only 700,000 inhabitants (compared to 27 million in Nepal), Bhutan is a relative minnow. We saw quite a few cars, many of them quite new, and well-paved roads, and the general look was more prosperous than Nepal or rural India. We were told that a typical government office job pays about $250 a month, far above the average in the Indian subcontinent. In fact, when we drove by a road construction project, we saw Bihari labourers from India breaking rocks; Bhutan imports them since Bhutanese are apparently not crazy about doing menial work for low wages.

The landscape was pretty vertical, with fairly steep-sided valleys carved out of high mountains. The reason why the airport is so far from Thimphu is that Paro is one of the very few places with enough flat land for aircraft to land. Bhutan, unlike Nepal, has almost no low-lying plains; the boundary with British India was drawn at the foot of the hills. This explains a large part of why Nepal is so much more densely populated than Bhutan. There certainly was tree cover, but much of the landscape looked much drier and rockier than I had anticipated, far from the lush forests of central Nepal.

One of the quirks of Bhutan is that the import and sale of tobacco is forbidden. Prohibition being as ineffective as it is, there is apparently a thriving trade in black-market cigarettes from India, but I didn’t see anyone lighting up openly. I did see a man with a furtive, unlit cigarette cupped in his hand in a building in Paro, while there was a definite whiff of tobacco smoke in the Thimphu post office. Given the tremendous health burden that smoking puts on a country, the prohibition seems like a good idea, making Bhutan one of the only countries that has decided that health benefits should trump tax revenues.

As we drove around, one of Bhutan’s most distinctive idiosyncrasies was everywhere to be seen. Phallic imagery, held to be useful in driving away evil spirits, was unmissable: painted on white-washed walls wrapped in dainty ribbons, standing out proudly from doorframes above yak skulls, or dangling in outsized carved wooden form from the eaves of houses and monasteries, phalli were everywhere. The Bhutanese seem to be as obsessed with the erect male member as were the ancient Greeks and Romans!

The traditional architecture that had so charmed us at the airport and at Paro dzong was everywhere in evidence. It worked on houses, generally constructed out of adobe and timber, but on modern concrete blocks, the paint job did little to hide the essentially modern and ugly nature of the buildings. On the other hand Thimphu looks a lot nicer than most cities of its (small) size in the developing world, so maybe the slightly fake paint job is better than the alternative. Thimphu is a fairly modern creation, a bit like Bhutan itself; the first king of Bhutan, the current king’s great-grandfather, only took the throne in the early 20th century, and Thimphu became the capital even later, in the 1960s. It sprawls slightly across the valley floor and a short distance up the pine-clad slopes of the Himalayan foothills, looking like a cross between a Japanese provincial town and a very small, very clean version of Kathmandu.

We drove around the town briefly, passing crowds of citizens paying their respects to the new government ministers appointed since the country’s first-ever democratic elections, held just two weeks earlier. The men wore ceremonial white scarves draped over one shoulder like small togas; we were told that a man’s rank could be read from the colour of his scarf, and these white scarves were the badge of the common people, while yellow, red, green and blue showed various grades of nobility and royalty. We also were passed by the king’s car, which was accompanied by one of the smallest official motorcades in all of Asia.

The rest of the day passed in a long nap, supper and a good night’s sleep. Supper was a delicious confection of cheese and chillies that Joanne liked so much that she tried to get it served at every subsequent meal. We awoke the next day refreshed, ready for a day of poking around the capital. We began the day by walking out of our little hotel and staking out a spot on a bridge over the river for taking pictures of people. We were fortunate in our choice of location, with crowds of schoolkids crossing the bridge to get to school, and hundreds of farmers and city-dwellers headed to and from the market and bus depot, making for a good cross-section of the population. The students all had to wear uniforms based on traditional dress, albeit accessorized with stylish sneakers and knapsacks. A few monks, dressed in the same Burgundy colours as in Tibet and Burma, stood out in the sea of kiris and ghos worn by the adults. Wizened old faces of bow-legged farmers contrasted with the porcelain doll complexions of stylish young women from the city.

After breakfast, Ghalley arrived to take us off on our city tour. We covered an amazing amount of ground in a single day, visiting no fewer than eight different sights. We started off at the thaksin reserve, where the national animal, looking like a cross between a deer, a goat and a bison, wanders around a fenced-in enclosure in the hills above town. The king decided some time ago that it was un-Buddhist to keep a wild animal in captivity and ordered the reserve closed down, but the thaksin kept wandering back to their old enclosures, so it was decided to keep it open to help out these animals who had become accustomed to the free handout. We kept driving steeply uphill to the end of the road at a telecom tower, where thousands of multi-coloured prayer flags hung in crazy profusion from every branch of every tree. After absorbing the vast views over Thimphu and the mountains beyond, it was back down the hill to a small nunnery (populated by some of the least motivated nuns I have ever seen but visited by some wonderful old female pilgrims) and then a school teaching the traditional arts of the country. The students seemed about as absorbed by their chosen arts as the nuns had been, with the only signs of animation in the courtyard during tea break as boys and girls flirted and exchanged mobile phone numbers. Some of the Buddhist thangkas and murals and sculptures showed promise, but overall the quality of workmanship was underwhelming. However, it was good to see that the government is trying to keep traditional arts alive as the country modernizes.

The weekend market, our last stop before lunch, was much more rewarding, at least in terms of local colour. Every second stand seemed to be selling hot chilli peppers, and the women could easily have been from Burma’s Shan State with their weather-beaten friendly faces and brightly patterned kiris. There was a great variety in facial types, with some classic Mongolian and Tibetan features and others looking as though they had stepped off the streets of Calcutta.

At lunch we handed over our bundle of $100 bills to the owner of our tour agency to pay for our tour, and had an interesting chat with him. He said that the former king, Jigme Wangchuk, the architect of Bhutan’s modernization, had watched the self-destructive demise of the Nepalese monarchy and decided that the Bhutanese system of government was going to have to change from a benevolent absolute monarchy to a limited constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. Even though most Bhutanese probably would have preferred the king to remain in office and continue to hold the reins of power, he decided that one way to avoid the sort of nepotistic corruption that blighted Nepal was for him to abdicate in favour of his son, thus eliminating the power base for the families of his three wives which were widely perceived as becoming too wealthy and powerful for the good of the nation. The elections which had just occurred were another step along the path to developing a modern state; the party which had won a surprisingly large majority was viewed as being opposed to the royal ex-inlaws.

We headed out, sated with momos, and made a brief drive-by visit to a memorial gompa to the third king (the current king’s grandfather) before heading to the day’s photographic highlight, Changantha Lhakhang, a small, brightly coloured monastery full of painted prayer wheels and dedicated pilgrims. Joanne had me working as a photographer’s assistant, spinning prayer wheels to get just the right effect. As we left, we met another family of pilgrims with about eight teeth between them, and Joanne managed to get them to pose for her with the mountains and the monastery in the background. We finished our tour at Trashicho Dzong, the king’s official residence and palace. It was huge and imposing and almost completely empty, although at the end of our visit, the king drove by and there was a flurry of activity of soldiers and officials keeping the few tourists motionless and out of the way.

Cities are all very well, but a Himalayan kingdom’s highlights are, by their nature, outdoors. We had chosen to walk up to the isolated Gasa hot spring east of Thimphu to begin our whirlwind tour of the countryside. Joanne absolutely loves hot springs, and I have to admit that after a day of hiking or skiing, there’s nothing that feels better than a good soak. We drove out of town for three hours, crossing a 3050-metre pass, the Decho La, which was completely swathed in dense fog. Ghostly cedar trees peeked through here and there, adorned with thousands of strings of Buddhist prayer flags; our driver and Ghalley helped Joanne add our contribution to the fluttering colourful tangle. A memorial gompa commemorated modern Bhutan’s only war, a brief fight in 2003 against Indian rebels sheltering in the south of the country.

Our road descended into another steep-sided valley, and then passed through the town of Punakha and then headed uphill along a dirt track in ever-increasing states of deterioration. After a series of dramatic, erratic switchbacks, we tumbled out of our vehicle in a tiny hamlet at an elevation of 2300 metres. Our outsized caravan was slowly assembled: two cooks, a muleteer and his assistant, our driver, Ghalley, five mules and enough food for a battalion for a week. Joanne, worried that she wouldn’t be able to make it three hours up the valley to the hot springs, had opted for her own mule, and we set off with me strolling alongside her as she perched a bit precariously on her saddle. On the steeper downhills, as we crossed small streams, the mule owner had her get off and walk, and sometimes she would forget to climb back aboard, meaning that she still limped into the hot springs with a sore knee and ankle.

The walk was wonderful, passing through dense rhododendron forests punctuated with bamboo stands and waterfalls and alive with dozens of species of birds. It reminded me strangely of the highlands around Nikko that we visited many times during our stay in Japan. I wandered along happily, looking for birds in the dense undergrowth and absorbing the surroundings. The skies, leaden at first, began to drop drizzle as we progressed, and when we finally got to the hot springs, the rain settled in for a prolonged fall. Our entourage set up our tent, and we wandered out for a soak in the tubs, not terribly crowded at this point in the afternoon. There are few things as enjoyable as soaking in hot water while cold rain or snow pelts down on you. As far as atmosphere and cleanliness go, the pools finished a poor second to any Japanese onsen, but it was fun to see the local Bhutanese enjoying themselves, as they gathered in increasing numbers as dusk approached. After a delicious meal in our cook tent, Joanne and I wandered out for another soak, this time barely finding space in any of the pools. At least the rain let up, so that our night sleeping in our tent wasn’t too soggy.

After bathing one more time in the early morning in a failed attempt to beat the crowds, we retraced our steps to the car, spotting more birds (red-vented bulbuls, whistling thrushes, grey-headed flycatchers and a host of unidentified species). The ground was richly carpeted with exquisite wildflowers. For one of the first times in our visit, the grey skies parted and we had views of distant Himalayan giants, as well as an imposing dzong looming above the dense forests on a distant ridge. Joanne’s mule was behaving mulishly, and I burned some calories whacking it across its backside with my walking stick trying to get it to move. It took nearly four hours to get back to the car, and after a picnic on the richly dunged grass beside the road, we swayed down the rollercoaster road back to the pavement, and drove onwards to the town of Punakha, site of an impressive dzong. There was a large population of monks, many of them young novices, and Joanne and I took lots of photos of them as they clowned around boyishly in their free time. The walls were adorned with exquisitely painted mandalas, and the prayer hall was a thing of beauty. Ghalley gave us a really informative talk about the symbolism of the Six Realms mandala, which had three animals representing the deadly sins of lust (a rooster), hatred (a snake) and ignorance (a pig). We headed up the hill to our lodge, a pretty cluster of cottages that seemed like a piece of Shimla or Darjeeling plunked down in Bhutan. The hotel was full of a group of wealthy bird-watchers, and the gardens were alive with dozens of species. Like all the Himalayan countries, Bhutan is an ornithologist’s dream. Our lodge was perhaps the nicest hotel of the trip, and we slept long and deeply.

The next day Joanne’s new guide and driver arrived, and we drove together towards the east before we split up. Joanne and her guide headed further east towards a festival, while Ghalley and I turned off southwards on a lightning trip to the marshy highland valley of Phobjika. During the winter there is a resident population of extremely rare black-necked cranes, but we there in the wrong season, and so we had to make do with the scenery and a visit to the crane conservation centre. Amazingly, even in sparsely-populated country like Bhutan, conservation efforts for rare species can be difficult because of human population pressure and habitat destruction because of farming, as is the case here. Luckily the king, and his father before him, are quite keen conservationists, as befits devout Buddhists. The dramatic scenery on the pass into the valley made up for the lack of cranes, as did the flowering rhododendrons in the dense forest. Joanne and I said goodbye in the junction town of Wangdus Phodruk and I headed back to Thimphu, daydreaming most of the way through persistent drizzle and greyness.

After a good night’s sleep, Ghalley and I drove back up to the telegraph tower above Thimphu where we met up with our trekking team. Again, the number of people and mules involved in going on a three-day trek was excessive; I was employing 5 men and 7 mules. I thought of multi-day treks I had done elsewhere in which I had carried everything I needed on my own back. We set off ahead of the horses, as the cooks had to wait for forgotten equipment to be brought up from the office in Thimphu. It was a relief to be walking essentially on my own, under my own power and at my own pace, the only way to see and appreciate the Himalayas. We walked under leaden skies that spit rain periodically, through moss-covered primeval forests of cedar and rhododendron alive with myriad birds, some of them completely new to me. A couple of hours of steep, steady ascent brought us to Phajo Ding Gompa, a small, remote monastery at 3400 metres that clings to the slopes like the popular image of Shangri La. We waited in the cold for an hour and a half for the horses to catch up with the all-important lunch, and had time to discover that the monastery looked a lot better from a distance. The young novices were fun to watch, though, as they played soccer and a form of bocci in the fields behind the monastery.

Mist-shrouded mountains
With monasteries atop
Himalayan high

Rainbow-framed Thimphu
Shimmers a mile below me:
A good morning’s hike

After our long-delayed lunch, I climbed ahead quickly, stomping up over the vertiginous 3850-metre pass behind the monastery, then settling down in the mist to take pictures and wait for the horses. I felt intensely alive, as I always do walking in the mountains, concentrating on the views and the wildlife, measuring my body against the unforgiving test of the vertical landscape. Once across the pass, the landscape changed entirely to a high-alpine moorland, with the rhododendrons shrinking to dwarfish shrubs. We picked our way along crumbling, rocky ridges, across marshes and along exposed hillsides. The earlier rain turned to occasional snow flurries, but my thermometer never dipped below freezing and walking kept me warm. On our way through one small meadow, we scared up a male and female monal pheasant. They exploded up off the ground, wings beating noisily, then swooped downhill in a flash of iridescent blue and green feathers. I felt lucky to have spotted them, and my good mood continued all through the afternoon’s walk under increasingly sunny skies until we set up camp just above a marshy meadow called Semkhota at 4000 metres. I felt like some early European explorer, sitting on my camp chair writing up my diary as the various staff set up tents, fired up stoves and began plying me with tea, soup and food. I sat writing up my diary and watching birds, completely at peace with the world, until a sumptuous feast appeared (as well it might, given how much food we were carrying!)

After a restless altitude-affected night in the tent, the next day was easy, surprisingly so since I had been warned that trying to walk from Thimphu to Paro in three days was pushing the limits of what could be done. Instead, after less than four hours of actual walking, we set up camp in the early afternoon. I wandered along happily all day along a ridge, past a series of small alpine lakes, overjoyed to be footloose in the mountains. We saw another female monal pheasant, and later watched a small falcon catch a hapless rosefinch in mid-air. The dwarf rhododendrons were alive with several species of rosefinches, the vibrant scarlet of the males standing out against the green of the shrubs. We eventually dropped off the ridge, plummeting 600 vertical metres to cross a river, then climbing half as far up to a sunny ridge full of yak pastures, where we lunched at noon looking south at a magnificent panorama of snow-capped peaks. After lunch, it was less than an hour’s easy stroll to our campsite, in another yak pasture called Jangchulhaka at 3600 metres’ elevation. I sat outside in the sunshine writing, watching rosefinches, sketching and reading, at complete peace with the world.

The final day of walking was again shorter and easier than I had expected. I slept well, awoke early, breakfasted handsomely and then sat at a lookout atop a hill behind the camp, taking photos of the high peaks to the northwest which had made a rare cameo appearance from behind their constant veil of clouds. The forest was alive with birds, including some beautiful black and yellow grosbeaks. Ghalley eventually summoned me and we dropped off our ridge through thick rhododendron forests, along a lower ridge to a tiny, picturesque dzong and finally down, down, down endlessly to Paro. The relentless rhythm of my footsteps as we headed downhill got into my head and I found myself composing songs in my head to the beat.

After a relaxed trailside picnic, we were down at our car before 2 o’clock. We drove down into Paro town and found our hotel tucked into the farm fields beyond, where Joanne arrived a few hours later. She was full of excitement from her drive out to the festival, and had a camera card full of great pictures of dancers, monks and local farmers with their weather-beaten faces and kindly expressions. After dinner, we amused ourselves trying to take pictures of Paro Dzong, lit up at night and dominating the skyline.

Our last full day in Bhutan was spent walking up to one of the undoubted highlights of the country, a key feature of any tourist itinerary, Taktsgang Gompa. Also known as the Tiger’s Nest, it hangs improbably from a seemingly inaccessible cliff face in the mountains just above Paro. We set off early, and by 8:30 we were at the parking lot below, where Joanne was loaded onto a mule that seemed more lively than her mount at Gasa. I set off on foot, keen to see whether I could beat her to the top. It was no contest; I sat at the top for a quarter of an hour waiting for her to arrive, staring across at the incredible piece of architecture that is Takstgang. There were quite a few Western tourists, but they were outnumbered by Bhutanese pilgrims. I noticed that with very few exceptions, the Westerners rode mules up, while the Bhutanese walked. This may have something to do with the fact that the Westerners outweighed the Bhutanese by an average of 40 kilograms, little of that muscle.

When Joanne arrived, we walked down a steep slope to a waterfall and bridge that gave access to the final stairway to the monastery. The buildings, whitewashed with ochre and gold highlights on the upper stories, seem to sprout organically from the rocks, clinging to the cliffs like moss. It’s an incredible feat of engineering, ascribed in myth to a famous Tibetan figure, the 8th-century spreader of Buddhism throughout the Himalayas, Guru Rinpoche, who’s supposed to have flown here on the back of a tiger. It was destroyed in an electrical fire in 1998 and only reopened a few years ago, after an expensive rebuilding.

It was at this point that I made an unfortunate split-second decision that coloured the rest of the day. At the entrance to the complex, visitors are required to leave bags, as the authorities are concerned both about backpacks banging into wall paintings and with various pieces of art disappearing into the private collections of tourists. I took my camera with me (even though we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, I wasn’t going to leave it sitting at the entrance), but in a moment of inattention I left my fancy trekking watch, with its altimeter, compass and thermometer, attached to the outside of my camera bag in the pile of tourist backpacks.

The inside of the monastery is impressive, everything you expect a Tibetan Buddhist temple to be: dark, mysterious, full of statues and colourful mandala paintings, redolent of yak butter. We wandered around happily absorbing atmosphere, finally emerging to find my watch, predictably, gone. I was outraged; the bag had been left in an area overseen by a surly Bhutanese soldier who was completely unconcerned about the theft. This did nothing to endear him to me, and his abrupt, dismissive answers soon had me yelling at him. I was certain that the soldier was either inattentive and incompetent, or else had actually stolen the watch himself. It was foolish of me to have left the watch on display rather than attaching it to my wrist, but I had been lulled by the fact that we were in a Buddhist haven of Gross National Happiness, and at a place of worship and pilgrimage. I hate having things stolen, especially something that was a cherished gift from Joanne, and I vented my annoyance on the sneering soldier before stomping off back down the mountain. Checking the rest of our possessions, Joanne found that one of her two bags had been opened, although nothing had been taken. Presumably the thief had been interrupted by tourists arriving; this was just as well, as in Joanne’s other bag there was a purse full of dollars that would have been a far more valuable prize.

The rest of the day followed unpleasantly, with telephone calls, complaints to the police, and a summons to the office of an arrogant army major who, in classic bully style, tried to shift the blame onto the hapless and blameless Ghalley. I was having none of it, but as an outsider I was able to ignore the blusterings of the officer without worrying about the consequences; Ghalley left worried that somehow he was going to end up getting blamed by the army for the theft, when in fact he was about the only person who couldn’t have stolen the watch.

The theft left a pall over that last day, although stumbling across an archery competition on our way back to our hotel redeemed the day partly. Bhutan’s national sport is archery, and the only Olympic medal ever won by the country’s athletes came from a female archer. Driving through town, we spotted a cluster of people holding bows and Joanne insisted that we drive over to watch. The men wore traditional ghos with a series of blue, green, red and yellow scarves handing from their belts, but their bows were expensive modern composite competition models. Their precision was impressive, especially given the enormous distances over which they were shooting (well over 100 metres). A reasonable crowd had gathered to watch and cheered each shot with genuine enthusiasm. Joanne and I tried to capture the moment of release with our cameras, but I found it an almost hopeless task. Joanne was much better at freezing the arrows as they left the bowstrings. It was a nice bonus to see the archery, as we had hoped to see a competition in Thimphu but hadn’t been in town on the proper day. Walking back to the car, we were amused to realize that we were walking through knee-deep patches of wild cannabis, which the Bhutanese call "pig grass". I wonder if they have chilled-out pigs with goofy grins and ridiculous appetites?

That evening we dined well, slept long and deep, and drove to Paro airport the next morning. Despite the expensive, tedious annoyance of the stolen watch, I was very impressed overall with Bhutan overall. Its scenery is impressive, it is doing extremely well at preserving its fragile Himalayan environment, its economic development seems to be far more equitable and well-thought-out than in India or Bangladesh or Nepal, and its culture seems to be standing up well to the tsunami of creeping global uniformity overwhelming other countries in Asia. Even its politics seem to be headed along the right path. Given unlimited time and money, I would gladly go back to Bhutan and spend a couple of weeks trekking across the high passes and mountains of the extreme north of the country. If I had the chance to teach or work there in some capacity, I would go there in an instant; a better country for hiking, biking, photography, bird-watching and immersing oneself in a fascinating culture would be hard to imagine.

As we flew back towards Bangkok and our connecting flight to Yangon, both Joanne and I agreed that our visit to the Land of the Thunder Dragon had been one of the highlights of our time in Burma, and were glad that we had paid the money for the privilege of seeing one of the most interesting countries in all of Asia. Country number 72 on my lifetime list gets special billing as one of my favourite destinations so far.