In an effort
to be affiliated to a new project at the university, dealing with
the in vitro
propagation of endangered plants from the foothills of Himalaya, I
found it necessarily to make a expedition to those locations, Bhutan being one of them,
Nepal, Bangladesh and
northern India others.
While literature list various characteristics within the flower,
they fail to list the growing conditions for these plants. That is
what I need to know, and it seems like visiting the original
habitat, is the only way to learn.
I will be able to observe, measure, learn and
understand their preferred conditions in the wild. I will analyse
light, pH, humidity and concentrations of nutrition along with other factors
like ventilation and animal interaction. This is a very little
studied subject, and with the array of species found in a relative
little but climate diverse area, this area offers a perfect study.
I hope to be able to visit the wild and
unspoiled nature along the road. However, the way Bhutan
tourism is made up, it seems like I have to go from temple to
temple. On the other hand; this is a rather unspoiled country, and I
hope I will find nature in close proximity to the places I stay.
Further more, I have found an agent who takes me into the wild.
Some facts about the country.
(Jump to diary)
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a rather small and real undisturbed
country between China and India. It covers 38.394 km2,
measuring roughly 200 times 300 kilometres, although it feels
significantly bigger, driving its roads!
Bhutan is the only country to have officially adopted "gross
national happiness" instead of the "gross domestic product", and
that thought is real appealing to me. In an effort to maintain the
country's cultural values, foreign visitors are restricted. Not directly
in numbers, but by the visa fee. At present, the fee is $US 200/250 +
$US 40 for singles - a day!. That does include most things like guide,
transport, food and
Of the 750.000 citizens, 75% practise Vajrayana Buddhism, 22% are Hindi
the rest dividend in-between and a few others religions.
MONEY: The currency is Ngultrum, fixed to the Indian rupee,
which also can be used:100BTN = 1,27€ and 9,45DKK. I recon dividing with 10
provides me with a roughly price in Danish Kroner.
The terrain is some of the most rugged in the world, characterised
by huge variations in altitude: 150-7.500 meters! That make Bhutan's
landscape ranges from subtropical plains in the south to the
sub-alpine Himalayan heights in the north, where some peaks exceed
7,000 metres. Where the warm south is the fare most populated and
interesting for me, the northern part is truly wild and unexplored.
ANIMALS and PLANTS:
The government has enacted a law that shall maintain at least 60% of
its forest cover for all time. Today, approximately 70% of the total
land area of Bhutan is under forest cover, and approximately 51% of
the land area falls under protected areas comprising of 10 national
parks and sanctuaries. The size of the country considered, that make
lots of room for the Bengal tiger, greater one-horned rhinoceros,
clouded leopard, wild water buffalo, hispid hare, the sloth bear,
grey langur, Indian leopard, goral, serow, black bear, red panda,
squirrel, sambar, wild pig and barking deer. In the heights, the snow
leopard, blue sheep, marmot, Tibetan wolf, antelope, Himalayan musk
deer and the takin can be found.
There are 90-200 mammal species in Bhutan, and more than 770 species
of bird. More than 5,400 species of plants are found, most occurring
in the warmer, southern part.
GETTING THERE: The national Druk Air have
routes from the nearby countries. It has to be mentioned: "Druk"
means "drunkenness" or "boozing" in Danish! There is a border
crossing from India in Phuntsholing, but it seems like the mandatory
guides insist on brining you directly to Paro, near the capital Thimphu,
instead of an
eight hour drive. Considering the visa fee, I just to fly in, and save a day.
6/1. Flying in from
in 7500 meters
height, way below the peak of Mount Everest, but along
that mightily mountain chain. The valleys below us is a
sea of clouds, but the range of giant peaks stands
clear, right outside my window. The peak of the true
giants, above 8600 meters are covered in their own
clouds, but it is still a fantastic sight.
The in-flight to Paro (elev. 2200) is amassing. It is clear, and the
mighty mountains and hills are clear, and each pinetree
and terraces can be seen, along with their special, huge
houses. All seems to be in two stories, all a bit like
Swiss alpine huts with loads of decorations. It is a
bumpy flight, in-between the hills and mountains!
I'm the first in line for pass and then custom, and
first out of the magnificent airport building. I find my
guide and my driver, which are wide-smiling younger men,
with a good English. They can't pronounce my name, and I
tell them to call me "B", but it end up with
Sir. I am
sure we will get some good time together. The car is a
almost new minibus - with heat! They both are warring
national suits - which seems to be mend for summer, and
we can easily agree on a warm car.
It is a hour drive to the capital;
Thimphu (elev. 2400), on a almost deserted, but never the less; well
maintained highway. The speed limit is 50 km/t, but fine
with me: The surroundings are breathtaking. Massive
hills and mountains with pines, a crystal clear river in
the button of the cliff, white peaks to the horizon and
these decorative houses scattered lightly around.
I tell them a bit about what I am
interested in seeing, and we skip the National
of traditional medicine services right away - it might
be closed anyway. We reach the tiny capital, which is
beautiful. The building regulations are strict, and even
Tata and Toyotas new sale houses fit in. We drive
straight through, to reach
the Kuensel Phodrang
or the Buddha Point,
which is the world's largest sitting Buddha statue. The statue is 51 meter high, and
it will house a temple inside. The statue
is situated on top of a hill overlooking Timphu. The word Kuensel
means "everything is clear" and from this place,
there is great view of the Thimphu Valley.
The statue is constructed out of bronze and cupper and is studded with many
stones and even a large diamond in the forehead. Since they are no factories in
the country which
can produce such a large bronze cast structure, it is being
manufactured in China and the pieces are brought to Bhutan and then
assembled here. The statue is finish, but the temple and the entire
area is still being build. A real kitsch adding is a
few, coloured and flashing lamps at the base. On the drive to the statue, the steep winding hill
road offers an unparalleled view of the city of Thimphu, which the
recent years has started to spread into the side
Next stop should have been the
Motithang Takin Preserve, but it is getting too dark,
and the animals won't be there. We start a bit earlier
tomorrow. The boys (Pema & Bishnu Lal) agree on early starts.
(While Pema is slightly older, he is from the generation
who only had one name). We drive
back to the hotel in the dusk. It is located walking
the centre of Thimphu, but as the name indicate: Quiet.
Peaceful Hotel is in the same type of
buildings as all the other buildings, and
it has a huge
Danish design fireplace in the reception. Pema & Bishnu
Lal stay along
for a cup of tea - and the fireplace. Then they head off
to somewhere else, and I start working in the lobby - next to
the fire. Well, it is actually not that cold, but...
I only get to work for a few
minutes before a young and funny
Indian girl turns up. Her Indian-English sounds
surprisingly much like Swedish-English. She has been in Sikkin - northern
province of India, and it is fun to hear her tell of
that. Despite they all Indian, her and her boyfriend was
being taken photos of, asked for signatures and in
general treated as freaks or movie stars. As she self
put it: Nowhere else in the world would two Indians
cause that commotion. We talk for an hour, then my supper
Only one thing pops into my mind in the dining room: I
am not worthy! The waiter places the napkin in my lab,
and start serving pumping soup, fresh salad, hot pasta
salad, roasted chicken and ice-crème. And I'm alone! I
ask to have the tea served in the lobby, next to my new,
best friend (no, not her: The fireplace!).
At ten, I figure I better find my
room. A bellboy show me the way, and once more, I only
think: I'm not worthy! Besides from it literally are
more than twice as big as my home, it just as I would
like my home fitted. Nice dark wood, tasteful lightning,
plenty of open space - and warm! 8x6 meters, big,
spotless marble bathroom, but I fail to find the sauna though.
If it is snowing tomorrow, Pema & Bishnu Lal can go without me....
Despite the real nice and warm room, I am having a hard
time sleeping. My alarm set for 6:10 is one major
factor, distant dog's hauling another. I get up real
early and start working on some thoughts about how to
grow plants - way beyond the way NASA does.
My "handlers" are a bit late, but it is cold outside
anyway. It seems like it has been frost this night, and
it is still a crisp air. This valley is filed with
naked apple- and cherry trees, and it must look
fantastic in the spring. Like Nepal, it is either
cold or it rains.
Bhutan's industry is
located way down south, in the lowlands, where the
pollution is less effective. Their lowland is 300 meters
above sea, and they have no coastline, just squeezed
in-between China and India. And kind of only open to
We head straight towards
because the road will be closed for two hours due to
road-works. On the way, we pass the big power station,
feeding the entire western Bhutan. It is a waterpower
station, and more are being build. That way, Bhutan can
gain a nice income from selling electricity to India,
and of the cleanest form. We pass endless forests in
steep gorges, small apple stands, the white river in the
button and as we assent: White trees on the ridges. Look
most like snow, but it could be icing.
I make a lot of desperate photo attempts out the
windows, and we do several stops too. It is still misty
at Dochu La
is 3140 meters and covered in praying flags. On a clear day, the
entire Bhutan Himalaya can be seen from here - that is not today.
The sun breaks trough in small spots, but the clouds
refuses to give up.
Next to the pass is
the beautiful but strange Druk Wangyal Khangzang Chortens, built as
a tribute to the Kings of Bhutan for their selfless service and
leadership they offer to the people of
Bhutan. It is a gathering of
small temples on a hillside.
From here, it is
significantly more moist, and the oak, maple and blue pine is
changed into Rhododendron, alder, cypress, hemlock and fir.
They are covered in lichen, mosses, ferns and quite some
orchids. The road keep twisting in and out of gorges,
and new lookouts passes constantly. When we reach the
entrance to The Royal Botanical Garden in
Serbithang, about 15 kilometres from Thimphu,
it is closed. The 12 hectare garden,
which was established in 1999 is still being developed. The garden
is managed by just nine people, but it has an exchange
programme with the botanical garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, which
should help upgrade the knowledge and skills in the development
management of the garden. The purpose of a botanical garden is not
just to amuse people, but that it serves a greater purpose of
educating, conserving and researching. As other botanical gardens,
the plants has records of where it was collected from, who collected it
and when it was collected. Therefore, the most important and
interesting aspect of a botanical garden is its educational impact.
Right inside the unlocked entrance, some big, old roots
are home to a great collection of epiphytic orchids.
has promised to introduce me to the manager of the
garden, and I wrongly assume we will be back here.
Bhutan should be home to 430 different species of
orchids, and I have seen at least ten by now. Flowers
would add considerable to the list, I think.
A big lake; Bartisho is like a mirror, in which the
mountains and huge trees mirror them self. A bit of ice
in the edges, and some icing on the grass, but the lack of wind and first beams of sun make it quite nice. The
next collection is many of the 46 species of
Rhododendron, found in Bhutan. The office and guest
buildings are beautiful buildings like elsewhere in the
country - but empty.
We do a big loop around the more natural part of the
garden, and passes a tent like the one the hill nomads
are using. It is made by yak hairs, but it could be
tough nylon. A big but ground crawling Selaginella
catch my eyes. It is common here, but I have never seen
it before. Some bushes are flowering white to pink,
related to Rhododendron, but...
We reach a small but well displayed shadow-house with
more orchids and some ferns and lichen. Pema tell me; his
tribe eats them as a replacement for meat, and he loves
them (I keep an eye at him). Back in the wild, I find some other orchids, and a
lot of fantastic panoramas. We are still alone, and
leave bye a back door.
As we start the tour back, I see some
epiphytes which MIGHT be
Agapetes serpens: The plant I most of all wanted
to see. Ever since I first read about it, and the line
"found in the foothills of Himalaya", I have wanted to
see it in the wild. I get Bishnu Lal to toss the car, and run back: IT IS!
The caudex is covered in mosses, and it sit high up in a
It is a member of the Heather-family which have adopted
till this strange epiphytic habitat.
After a while, I spot what could be a large plant with
exposed caudex, and Bishnu Lal get another chock. It is a
fantastic plant, and despite the strong light against, I
get some descent photos. I tell Pema: It has been a great
day, we can return to a hotel.
We don't. Instead, we walk down for
some time, finding more Agapetes, orchids,
fantastic views and even a flowering, red
Rhododendron! As we
reach the lower areas, rice terraces dominate the lower
parts of the hills. We stop several times for photos and
short walks, before we are stopped again.
It is another road work, blocking the road for the next
hour and a half. Pema and I start walking downwards, and
soon, I spot two giant beehives, high up on a vertical
cliff-wall. A bit further down the road, some more of
the small offerings, sit on a cliff shelf. Look like
Some of the locals are out walking. It seems like
are popular here. Bad teethes and red gums and lips, and
I did actually notes the spitting earlier on several
occasions. The traffic runs again, and Bishnu Lal pick us up.
Next stop is a brand new, traditional house, housing a
restaurant in Punakha, found in a low and warm valley.
Pema & Bishnu Lal think I want to sit and eat alone, but that not
going to happen. We share our food at one table, in one
room, and I learn a bit of their diet. It taste great,
but it is tourist modificated ... They eat meat, and
have given it some thoughts. Buddha eat meat, and one of
the highest ranking monks told him, it was no problem,
as long someone else did the killing. Eating the animal
afterwards was a way to show your gratitude.
Pema, who is a devoted Buddhist, try to explain a lot of
the basic Buddhism to me, how it is so integrated in
Bhutan culture and how it all started.
We pass the huge fortress of
Punakha Dzong, but it is not open yet, and we head on to
Jigme Dorji National Park.
Is Bhutan's second largest national park with
4316 square kilometres. It is named after the former King the Jigme
Dorji Wangchuck. The park essentially occupies almost all of the
Gasa Dzhongkhag as well as parts of the Punakha Valley. The park
interesting cover the three major altitudinal zones of Bhutan, at
its lowest the park has an elevation of 1400 meters above sea level
and at its highest about 7000 meters.
The park is home to 37 species of mammals out of which several are
listed as endangered on the ICUN red list. Here are Takin, Snow
Leopard, Clouded Leopard, Royal Bengal Tiger, Himalayan Blue Sheep,
Black Musk Deer, Himalayan Black Bear, Red Panda, Indian Leopard,
and Pica. The Jigme Dorji national park is also home to over 300
species of birds including the Tibetan Black Necked Crane.
Well, we do see some small birds and a boy who is
cutting firewood. Many of the orchids sits low, and I
even find one which I can't set genera on. Pema, who never
have had a plant before, is somehow being inspired - or
contaminated by my enthusiasm, and nick an orchid for
his home. Well, I get along with photos.
Here are some vulgarly looking Urticaceae, and I
keep my fingers to my self this time! On the way back,
we find a lot of wild, young Cannabis sativa
plants. The drive
to and from the park is fantastic. As every other road
in Bhutan, is follows a river. Is passes scatted houses
and a few local people, some having an bow and arrow
contest; the national sport. A few small horses, evenly small black cows,
black dogs and a cat crosses the road. The last make Bishnu Lal
back-up a meter - just to prevent bad luck.
We make a stop at one of the many water-driven praying
mills. The sun has given up for the day, and my photos
tend to be rather desperate.
Then we are back at the huge Punakha Dzhong or the Pungtang
Dechen Phortang Dzhong, located at the confluence of the Mo Chhu
and the Po Chhu River, combine to form the Puna Tsang Chu which in
turn is a tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra River. The Dzhong was
constructed by Sahbdrung Ngwang Namgyal Wangchuck in 1638 on the
exact spot as prophesized by the Guru Rinpoche some 800 years ago.
According to the prophecy of Guru Rinpoche "a person named Namgyal
will arrive at a hill that looks like an elephant". And lo behold! Shabdung Ngawang Namgyal found that the peak of the hill was in the
shape of an elephant's trunk and built the Dzhong at that very spot.
It is home to the sacred mortal remains of Shabdrun Nagawang Namgyal
and Trenton Pema Lingpa the great treasure discoverer of Bhutan. The
Punakha Dzhong has also served as the of capital Bhutan till 1955,
before the capital was moved to Thimphu. The Dzhong is still the
winter residence of the Je Khenpo (chief abbot) and the central
I will not try to describe this immense building - well:
It is big, magnificent decorated, well maintained,
beautiful and impressive. Pema explains a lot of the
details to me. In a giant hall, way back in the cluster
of buildings, the most holy of Buddhism is found. It is
a magnificent room which is completely decorated. Gold
colons, bright silk draping, massive statues and extreme
detailed drawings on the outer walls. Some showing
Buddha's earthly life. It is so interesting to hear Pema
tell all this with his enthusiasm and knowledge and at
the same time: Love. And it is great to have a guide who
only tell about the things I want to hear!
Pema & Bishnu Lal, who both are warring the traditional Bhutan suits,
has here to add a long, wide cloth - kind of a tie - but
worn over one shoulder, across the chest in a
complicated way. Bishnu Lal never get it right, and fight with
it, the entire time.
Despite it is not five yet, it is
getting darker, and Pema & Bishnu Lal calls it a day. One part of me
wanted to see more, another know I have photos enough
for one night - and the light is fading too fast anyway.
We drive to a new hotel in Wangdue. We passes a small
marked on the way, but it seems like apples are almost
the only crop for sale by now. Pema & Bishnu Lal disappears after
having checked me in at Puna Cottages, but returns an hour later in
western clothing. They just want to say goodbye, and
disappears with another guide.
I get my supper served, all by my self. A starter in
form of a chicken soup. Then seven plates with
vegetables in different states of spice and steaming,
plain rice, fried chicken - with splinters of bones as
usual, a rich sauce, some puffed-up brads and a
delicious tofu, matching many of the pork-dishes I have
had recently - honestly; it was better! Then, it is back
to the computer and the 374 photos of the day. Many
suffers from the lack of light, combined with the
movement of the car, but the motives are awesome!
While I continues my work, a family of Indians start
dining next to me. Apparently, they lack lips, just like
Chinese, and I appreciate the fact, I have finished
eating. When the staff politely tells me, I got a room,
around ten, I am a bit disappointed. It is not warm, and
there are no Wi-Fi. At least, here are some of the rubber
bags and hot water.
I keep working till after midnight,
and once again, I promises my self: Les data, les
photos.... I ought to make some slideshows, but I can't
figure a logical way to divide them into series.
The epic journey should have continues in