‘I’m going on holiday’. ‘Oh, anywhere nice?’ comes the response. ‘Bhutan’ I reply. The majority of my friends and colleagues have a pretty good idea where Bhutan is, with some vague recollection of a flag with a dragon on it, something to do with the people being happy and there being lots of mountains and tigers. Beyond that Bhutan remains shrouded in a certain mystery, 50 years after opening its doors to the outside world. It’s been a dream of mine to go there, and as I approached 40 it seemed the right time to plan my pilgrimage.
Looking for all the world like the leaf of a begonia from space, the diminutive Kingdom of Bhutan, otherwise known as Druk Yul or The Land of the Thunder Dragon, sits astride the great Himalaya. To the north, its mountains border the Tibetan plateau, to the south its great rivers drain into an area known at the Duars, in India. From there they flow into the heavily populated floodplain we know better as Bangladesh.
Accordingly, Bhutan’s territory encompasses everything from alpine screes to tropical forests and everything in between. But unlike its South East Asian neighbours Bhutan’s natural resources remain pristine and appreciated by its people. Buddhism’s respect for all sentient beings means that killing animals for food or amusement is taboo. Reverence for trees is also deep-rooted, the four main events in the life of the Buddha having taken place under a tree. Now Bhutan is considered one of the world’s few biodiversity hotspots, home to 200 species of mammal and 770 species of bird, including many endangered elsewhere in the world. So what of flora? Well, 72% of the country is forest, with only 8% under agricultural production. The remaining 20% is permanently or temporarily covered in snow. The forests and alpine meadows are home to 5000 species of plant, including 50 varieties of rhododendron.
So, what can we expect to see on our visit? Well, I’m hoping there will be rhododendrons and magnolias aplenty, this being their main flowering season. There should also be irises, saxifrages and primulas, plus more alpine activity where the snow is starting to melt. Our chances of encountering the national flower, the blue poppy (Meconopsis bhutanica), are pretty remote, it being a summer flowering plant. But whatever we find it will be a privilege just to experience this kind of untrammeled nature first hand. I intend to keep you posted.
Happy Easter one and all!
Photo of Thimphu, Douglas McLaughlin, Wikimedia Commons. Other photos Wikimedia Commons (until I take some of my own!)