Much of the driving in Bhutan is tortuous and faintly terrifying. It’s best to pay as little attention as possible to where the car wheels are going and distract yourself with plant spotting instead. Imagine driving along a farm track through one of the great Cornish gardens like Trebah or Glendurgan, add a few dozen switchbacks, landslides and waterfalls, subtract the tree ferns and palms (which are not from these parts) and you’ll have a fair idea of the scenery. Then keep going for at least five hours, without a loo break, until your bottom goes numb. That sums up road travel Bhutan style.
The road from the capital Thimphu towards the east of Bhutan crosses the first of nine or ten mountain passes at Dochu La. At 3140m it’s not the highest, but enough to make unfit people like myself puff and pant at the slightest exertion. Winding quickly through blue pine forests the air cools noticeably, although in the sunshine it still feels like a warm May day. Around Hongtsho, the checkpoint for all travel eastwards, every roadside bank and cool valley is carpeted with purple drumsticks, the flowers of Primula denticulata (below). They run riot, just like our common primrose, Primula vulgaris. A week later, when we return this way the denticulatas are over, replaced by diminutive Primula gracilipes, Bhutan’s most common primrose.
Scenting the air everywhere in Bhutan at this time of year is Daphne bholua. Its insignificant white or pale-pink flowers are really tricky to photograph as they seem rarely to be unblemished, but it’s the lovely scent that matters. The bark of daphne is used to make traditional Bhutanese writing paper. It’s termite proof and therefore employed for the writing of precious religious scripture.
Towards the summit, bright specks of red, pink and cream begin to appear in the thickening evergreen forest, which is mainly made up of oak (Quercus glauca, Q. lamellosa and Q. oxyodon) plus assorted pines and spruces, but notably towering hemlocks (Tsuga dumosa). The specks of flower belong to rhododendrons arboreum and falconeri which attain tree-like proportions in these high, undisturbed forests. One week later those specs have developed into a riot of colour, as far as the eye can see.
High in the forest canopy, the flowers of Magnolia campbellii appear like flocks of white birds against the blue sky. This is the only species of magnolia we’ve encountered in the wild, although more on it’s equally striking relative, Michelia doltsopa, in a later post.
Right at the top of the pass a collection of 108 chortens (below) have been constructed to commemorate those who died in a recent conflict with militants from Assam. The number 108 is deeply auspicious in Bhutan and doesn’t represent the number of those who perished. On the slopes opposite, hundreds of prayer flags let their messages fly in the breeze as the sun rays slant through the trees. Alas, despite the sunshine, weather conditions at this time of year mean that a haze obscures the view of the high Himalayas to the north.
Every pass in Bhutan shares the same kind of primeval feeling, the air so clean that lichens encrust trunks and hang from every bough. This is where some of the tallest and oldest trees grow, many of the venerable hemlocks without their tops, but fighting on. Some of these trees are proven to be over 700 years old. It’s hard to describe in words the majesty of these humid, mainly evergreen forests but it’s fitting that they’re preserved now as a Royal Botanical Park. Once over the pass travellers descend through the Lampelri forest towards the Royal Botanical Gardens. Anyone expecting Kew would be disappointed – the gardens are, to put it politely, in their formative stages. However there’s a decent and well labelled collection of Rhododendrons, including deep red Rhododenron thomsonii. This is an ideal shrub for smaller gardens with acid soils.
On our travels I’ve soon realised that far from being homogenous, the forests of Bhutan are a series of complex habitats, some plants appearing in quantity in certain places, never to be seen anywhere else. This seems to be especially true for many rhododendrons, which appear to be picky about both aspect and elevation. For example the beautiful magenta Rhododendron kesangiae (below) appears in very small groups, usually just below the high passes at 3000m. Rhododendron falconeri seems to prefer conditions a little lower down the slopes, but lights up the forest with its cream flower heads. The notable exception is Rhododendron arboreum, Bhutan’s anwer to the dreaded Rhododenrdon ponticum. A highly variable species, the flowers vary in colour from strawberry red to cerise pink. It will grow on cliffs and flat ground, in shade and in broad daylight. It’s really not that fussed.
When you’ve had enough of all those lipstick colours, bringing a dash of bright yellow to the canvas is Piptanthus nepalensis, or evergreen laburnum. Piptanthus makes a tall, open shrub and with its silvery leaves looks more Mediterranean than Himalayan. Considered not fully hardy in the UK, I’d say that given good drainage it should do pretty well in a warm spot, perhaps losing its leaves in the winter but recovering again in spring.
In my next post, The Valley of the Black Cranes – Gangtey and the Phobjikha Valley. And if we thought the roads over Dochu La were bad, we had another thing coming!