Bhutan is a mirror-image of the Buddhist culture and custom of old Tibet. Spectacular fortresses, the Dzongs, are still the civic and religious centres for each region. Sturdy bowmen dressed in colourful handwoven cloth take any opportunity to spend a day at archery, their national sport. It is a land of high mountains and a people steeped in an ancient tradition of courtesy and physical prowess.

It was through a meeting with His Majesty the King that I received a priceless invitation, which had to wait until an opportunity arose in January 1967, to visit Bhutan. I had planned, with the assistance of my wife, to carry out a survey of endemic goitre across the middle of the country, and also to climb and map in some of the lesser known regions. The unusual feature of this Himalayan journey was that we travelled with our two children, aged three and a half and one and a half years respectively.

Bhutan remains one of the least explored parts of the Himalaya, and is almost virgin land to the mountaineer. There were political missions to West Bhutan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Bogle (1774), Hamilton (1775), Turner (1783), Pemberton (1858) and Eien (1864), mostly to settle border disputes with the neighbouring Dooars and Assam. John Claude White, the political officer in Sikkim, travelled extensively in the West in 1905 when he went to present his knighthood to the Tongsa Penlop. Ugyen Wangchuk, for services rendered in accompanying the Younghusband expedition to Lhasa the previous year. In 1907 White went again for the enthronement of Sir Ugyen, grandfather of the present King, as the first in the line of hereditary maharajas. During these travels, on which he carried 264 loads of baggage, White reached as far east as Bumthang. Later he made a journey northwards through Eastern Bhutan on his way to Tibet.

Colonel F. M. Bailey in 1924 travelled east from Paro and Thinpu, reaching Bumthang and then crossing the Monlakachung La into Tibet. Probably the most extensive travellers of all, who sadly have written no accounts of their journeys, were two naturalists, Sherriff and Ludlow. They covered most parts of the country on several journeys in the thirties. The isolated Lunana district to the north-west has recently been twice visited by Ward and Jackson. Chomolhari, climbed by Spencer Chapman in 1937, is the only one of the great peaks to have fallen to the mountaineer. The reason for this small record of travel in former days was the policy of the Bhutanese, similar to that of Tibet, of discouraging foreigners. In more recent years it has been the difficulty of acquiring an Indian Government Inner Line permit which has prevented travellers from freely entering Bhutan. His Majesty and the Bhutanese people themselves were thoroughly welcoming to us and gave us every assistance.

The weather in early February, when we left on our eastward journey, was unusually good. The gigantic new Dzong at Thinpu looked magnificent in the clear frosty mornings, which were tolerably warm in the sunshine until the wind rose at midday and blew at force until evening. Our family caravan set out for Wangdi Phodrang, Sarah riding with Judith, the younger, astride the pommel of her saddle ; while I walked beside Adam who was secured with a long white Dzong scarf to the straps of two bedding rolls, lashed either side of a pack pony. Accompanying us were Lakpa Doma, a Sherpani from Darjeeling, who was our cook and helper with the children, and Chhimi Wangchuk, our Bhutanese interpreter and assistant. Both proved quite exceptional and without their help I doubt the possibility of such a journey. We carried with us a certain amount of luxury foods which we had bought in Phuntsoling bazaar on the Bhutan border. These we had packed in 60-lb. loads in cheap tin trunks for easy carriage by porters or pack pony. We had been warned of the scarcity of food in the centre of the country, but we aimed to buy basic rice, dhal, flour and vegetables locally when and where available. We were greatly helped by being able to buy supplies from the Dzong stores on a government order. I took a large case of medicines to dispense on our way, and equipment for my medical research.

From Wangdi Phodrang we took five days to reach Tongsa, following paths that switchbacked between high meadows and deep valleys. Soon a routine was developed and the children quickly adapted themselves to long days of riding, a very dull diet and strange places to sleep in. Adam's Teddy bear had to be strapped securely beside him when we saddled up in the morning. After lunch he and Judith would wander off and take delight in hurling their tin plates and mugs over the hillside to see how far they would slide. Having a bedtime story read by candlelight in a small cave was an exciting new experience lot both of them.






Contrary la expectation we encountered little snow when crossing the Pele La (11,610 feet), the dividing line between East and West Bhutan, although it was extremely cold at night, being at night in the year. Before Tongsa we descended a series of very strep steps to the Mangde Chhu, from which we climbed a thousand feet to arrive below the wall of the Dzong, which straddles a bluff of land pushing out at the confluence of two rivers and nearly vertical on three sides. It is one of the largest and most impressive of all Bhutanese Dzongs. The path, which is the main highway to the east, passes through the Dzong and one enters through enormous, fortified wooden doorways into a courtyard flanked with gaily painted balconies. Young lamas in saffron robes floated around noiselessly; chanting, with the clashing of cymbal and drum, came from an inner temple; there was an air of timelessness and little sign of change, judging from accounts written many years ago.

I left Tongsa to follow the Mangde Chhu northwards in order to see it if there was access to the mountains in this direction, but discovered that no way led beyond Dongthang; and these lower reaches of the river defile looked thickly forested and according to the local farmers, were impassable. There was, however a way eastwards over the Nakchi La which came out at Dhur in Bumthang,

After ten days based on Tongsa, in which I completed a house to house goitre survey of the valley, we hired new ponies and men for the stage to Bumthang. It was pleasant to find wide open spaces on the far side of the Yuto La (11,640 feet) after the deep and oppressive valley of Tongsa, described by Chhimi as a 'corner place'. There were several varieties of flowering shrubs and plants in the woods. The first night we spent at Ciyetsa; the next day, after climbing the Kyiki La (11,560 feet), we looked down on Byagar Dzong, the fertile open valley where Wangdi Chhoeling lies, and the wide panorama of snow-capped peaks on the Tibetan border that rose above forested foothills. This was the most beautiful place we saw in Bhutan. The northern mountains are called Monlakachung— place of no return—because long ago some Tibetans crossed south and were so enchanted with the valley that they settled there permanently. We planned a long stay in Bumthang as the main focus for our medical and geographical work, and were very fortunate in that the Paro Penlop lent us the guest-house of Wangdi Chhoeling, which was an ideal base for the family. The kitchen shack erected for us in the garden became a social centre for countless visitors and our supplies of tea and sugar were consumed rapidly in entertaining them. This problem was most acute after archery parties which the palace servants held in the grounds, when we might have twenty or more men crowded into our tiny hut.

On March 21, the first big snowfall of the year came, exceptionally late. It heralded the beginning of much intermittent bad weather which characterized subsequent weeks and drifted indiscernibly into an early monsoon with virtually no clear pre-monsoon season. This greatly hampered my mountaineering plans and caused me disappointment as a photographer because nearly every viewpoint we reached, after much toil, was wreathed in cloud. However, the late arrival of snow was a mixed piece of fortune as we had been spared snow and ice in the western passes in February, which could have made much difficulty.

After several exploratory trips into the region I departed for Monlakachung on April 1 with Chhimi and two porters, Kunzong and Wangdi. They were extremely strong, but Bhutanese porters never use a head support and I believe are not so good at carrying as the Nepali coolies. Only a few hours after setting out we were overtaken by a runner with a message to say that Adam had trodden on a hypodermic needle that had pierced right through his foot. Asking the porters to wait at Naspe, I ran back all the way to find that Sarah had extracted the needle and all was well, apart from some tears; however, it gave us a nasty fright and impressed on us vividly the problems we would have to face if any medical emergency should arise with which we could not deal with our limited facilities. I remained a while with Adam and then set off again to join the boys at Naspe. We spent a night at the Bhutanese Army camp in Kachtang. While we were having tea with the Bhutanese lieute- nant-in-charge, I noticed his bows and arrows in a corner and suggested a game. Within seconds there were orders of ' Dachaba' yelled by a sergeant from the steps of the house, and men doubled from their barracks armed with their bows. I was soon struggling in contest with forty skilled archers, continuing until night fell.

Next day we entered the gorge of the Chhamkar Chhu, which is the usual trade route from Central Bhutan to Tibet, and followed a delightful wooded path on the left bank till Gong Zam, where we lunched. The rhododendrons were in bloom, giving a dash of vivid scarlet and soft pink, carpets of purple primula lay beside the path and the heavy scent of a small white azalea bush filled the air. Huge cliffs on both sides plunged to the river and the path did much climbing and falling to skirt deep gullies, and often hung by the width of a couple of logs over the torrent. High above us soared a cirque of spires ringing an inaccessible side valley. It was a deep, dark and oppressive place and it was a relief at the close of a long day to emerge on a ft at yak pasture at Pangyetanka, the meeting place of the Melungphu Chhu and Chhamkar Chhu. We camped close by at Tsampa (12,450 feet) a small military post. After a good meal, we walked a mile with the moonlight shining on some spectacular mountains towering above us, to visit a Tibetan yak herdsman in his camp. Ferocious barking rent the still night air and we scaled the nearest boulder in time to avoid being savaged by three enormous Tibetan mastiffs roaming in the darkness. Their master having called them to order and securely chained them, we descended from our retreat and went to his house for some butter, tea and a mug of chang.

The next day we followed the valley towards Weitang (14,000 feet) three hours away and, as we rose, a truly Himalayan panorama unfolded, enhanced by the recent heavy falls of snow. After Weitang the trees ceased and an open barren valley led towards Chhutang (15,100 feet). After a bright and clear dawn, the usual daily weather pattern followed, heavy clouds gathering in late morning and giving way to snow showers after noon. On this day a blizzard set in and gathered force until nightfall. I passed a miserable sleepless night plagued by vivid and horrifying dreams. Snow blew through cracks in the wall of the hut and covered our sleeping-bags. The temperature was - 15 °C. and as I watched the snow pile up outside I suffered the frustration of being surrounded by so many unexplored mountains yet unable to see them, and wondering if I would be able to carry through my plans next day. I awoke at 3 a.m., the howling of the wind had died and I emerged from a hideous nightmare into a miraculous dawn. The sky was full of stars, and beautiful ghostly shapes of the distant mountains of Monlakachung stood high above us.



Bhutan : The Monlakachung Peaks From Drungso Ri.Yhe Panorama Covers Almost 180 , its Centre Looking Due North (P.R. Steele)

Bhutan : The Monlakachung Peaks From Drungso Ri.Yhe Panorama Covers Almost 180 , its Centre Looking Due North (P.R. Steele)

Chhimi and I ate a large breakfast of tea and chura, a dried fried rice, and after sending Kunzong down to Weitang to prepare our lunch, we left towards the head of the valley. There was a foot of new snow on the ground and every mountain and hill was plastered in a magnificent whiteness. I decided to climb the mountain which lies to the east of Chhutang with a fairly gentle slope in its lower part, as a suitable central viewpoint to observe the region. We crossed the river with difficulty by hopping across heavily iced boulders and banks overhung with snow, and reached the foot of the mountain still deep in shadow. The sun was catching the tops of peaks up and down the valley, which sparkled brightly. By keeping in the gullies I was able to kick steps in the crisp snow most of the way up the first 1,500 feet, which brought us on to a shoulder of flat ground. Not far distant, beyond a small lake, was the summit cone of the mountain several hundred feet above us. The sun was shining and melting the new snow which made very heavy going. Each step, after seeming as if it would hold, broke through the thin crust and we sank knee-deep or fell to our waists in unseen pockets between huge boulders. My throbbing head was flooded with unworthy thoughts and the temptation to turn back loomed large in those weary, dreary moments before the dazzling wonder of the summit views burst on us and put all such vagaries to flight. Chhimi and I sat at 17,080 feet looking at a panorama of the biggest mountain peaks in Bhutan. There were several of 20-23,000 feet and to the west lay one higher than its neighbours, Kula Kangri, as it appears on every available map. But it is the name of a mountain in Tibet and is not known as such in Bhutan. There was a spire-shaped peak which seemed to correspond with Rinchita, seen by Ward from the Lunana side. To the north I could see the Monlakachung La and the lake, Pame Tso, which is the last camp before crossing the pass. Forming the border with Tibet were some spectacular isolated peaks and glaciers which hung above a razor-backed moraine. I gave them names descriptive of their shape and drew a sketch map of the region. In every quadrant of the compass there were unclimbed mountains, a scene of snowy vastness with unlimited possibilities for exploration.

We called our peak Drungso Ri, meaning Doctor's Mountain, and I suspect in conditions of less snow it would be a ‘montague de vache'; but it had proved a fairly severe struggle for us. Chhimi was very frightened descending, as he had no previous experience of climbing, but he is a boy of enormous strength and unlimited willingness, I tripped in a hidden hole and fell 15 feet down some boulders, taking quite a severe buffering. I broke my ice-axe shaft and was fortunate it was not my leg. We glissaded sitting down the last 1,000 feet and returned to Chhutang by 11 a.m. as menacing clouds were beginning to roll up from the south and the midday snowstorm started. We reached Tsampa that evening, having some difficulty in negotiating three landslides in the final mile as dark was falling.

The next day we met a fairyland beauty in the gorge. All the trees were laden with snow and the sun breaking through made shafts of light which reflected brightly off the white carpet. Steam rose, giving a gentle haze, and large flakes fell melting from the trees ; flower blooms were bent by the weight of snow.

Our next stage in the journey east was towards Lhuntsi, in Kurte district. In the hope that the good weather must soon arrive we left Bumthang on April 16 for the Rudong La. It was a long and gentle haul from Tang Chhu to Fogphey where we camped. The following morning we crossed the pass, which has a formidable reputation with the Bhutanese, in a snowstorm. On the far side are a series of narrow steps cut out of the rock of some huge gendarmes standing free from the ridge overhanging a deep abyss. Chhimi and I carried the children on our backs over the steep places and they fortunately complained little, despite the cold. It was sad not to see any view from the top, as it apparently stretches across all of East Bhutan.

We took a week to reach Lhuntsi. We had been fortunate in finding plenty of large caves to camp in, which gave us a chance to dry out sodden clothing after the heavy afternoon rainstorms. At Lhuntsi we discovered that no rations were available owing to a scourge of rats the previous year, and our own supplies were running low, so we decided to leave without delay. The Rudong La, over which we had come, and the Dong La, our intended route to Tashi Yangtse, were both closed by 6 feet of snow that had fallen in the storms of the previous week, and there were reports of animals dying in snow-drifts. We had, l hen, only one route of escape—down the gorge of the Kur Chhu to Mongar. We were warned that the road had been washed out by landslides in several places and that there was a smallpox outbreak in some villages along our way; nevertheless it was essential to get out as soon as we could because food for the children was growing very short and we were now eating bracken shoots as a substitute for vegetables. On the third day south we entered the gorge where the path circuited the rock wall that enclosed the river. Leaving Owsho in the early morning in steady rain we soon met the first landslide. It was a place where a stream had descended, but with the torrent that must have poured down the previous week, large amounts of rock and mud had avalanched, taking the path with them down the cliff to the river and leaving only a deep scar. We unloaded the ponies and slithered with them down slippery mud into the watercourse and up a steep grass bank to sure ground. Then we returned to ferry across the loads. A similar performance was repeated on seven occasions during that day, resulting in our covering only three miles in ten hours. During these passages we put Sarah and the children under any overhanging rock we could find to keep dry, and on one occasion were able to find a cave, where we lit a fire to dry out. In one bad place where the path had completely disappeared, two logs, pegged with stakes to the hillside, were acting as a temporary gangway. Here one of the ponies slipped and was only saved from a precipitous descent into the river by a pony man seizing its tail and hauling it back on to the path, where it stumbled to safety. The medicine box broke loose and tumbled 400 feet, coming to rest on a ledge above the river from where it was retrieved by our head porter. The men were horrified to see blood seeping from the sacking covering of the box which held my glass specimen tubes. Chhimi and I returned to carry the family across in between landslides. Where the path was narrow and exposed I either carried Adam on my back or tied a white Dzong scarf round his waist and walked with him, which he considered a quite unnecessary precaution. By the afternoon lunch halt the sun broke through and the children were able to run around with no clothes on. After lunch we encountered a few small slips, of little difficulty or danger but still requiring unloading. On the evening of the fifth day we reached Mongar and spent a full rest-day in the magnificent new guest-house near the Dzong, Our road to Tashigang was more straightforward and on arriving three days later, on May 10, our journey across Bhutan was completed. The early pre-monsoon pattern of weather was now firmly established. Heavy clouds lay over the mountains, and downpours would come at irregular intervals. Because of this bad weather I decided not to go north to Shingbe but to walk out to Mera Sakden, where I spent a pleasant few days in the extreme eastern corner of Bhutan, in the country of the Brokpas, who are nomadic yak herdsmen.

We were exceptionally fortunate in having the chance to visit Bhutan and especially in being able to do the cross-country journey as a family adventure. Certainly when things looked gloomy, singing nursery rhymes in the rainy afternoon to two uncomplaining children prevented the adults of the 'expedition' from venting their displeasure. The children were a tonic to the flagging spirit, the greatest fun and a passport to the friendship of the Bhutanese, who welcomed us as a family rather than as a mysterious party of explorers.

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