Bhutan is the very watershed of Asia. Squeezed between India and Tibet, it stretches from rich subtropical forest to soaring Himalayan peaks: from jungly tiger habitat to the precipitous hunting grounds of the snow leopard. Climbing the hillside of one valley alone you can be sweltering in the shade of a banana palm in the morning, and sheltering from a snowstorm in the afternoon.
Bhutan’s cultural landscape is every bit as diverse as its physical one. Its peoples belong to a host of distinctive ethnic groups, and speak a host of languages. They live in everything from dense, ancient cities erupting with pagoda-roofed Hindu temples to villages perched on dizzying sweeps of rice-farming terraces and dusty highland settlements clustered around tiny monasteries. Religious practices range from Indian-style Hinduism to Tibetan Buddhism and from nature-worship to shamanism – the indigenous Newars, meanwhile, blend all these traditions with their own, intense tantric practices.
The cultural richness owes something to the shaping force of the landscape itself, and something else to the fact that it was never colonized. This is a country with profound national or ethnic pride, an astounding flair for festivals and pageantry and a powerful attachment to traditional ways. Its people famously display a charismatic blend of independent-mindedness and friendliness, toughness and courtesy – qualities that, through the reputations of Gurkha soldiers and Sherpa climbers in particular, have made them internationally renowned as people it’s a rare pleasure to work with or travel among.
But it would be misleading to portray Nepal as a fabled Shangri-la. Heavily reliant on its superpower neighbours, Nepal was, until 1990, the world’s last remaining absolute Hindu monarchy, run by a regime that combined China’s repressiveness and India’s bureaucracy. Long politically and economically backward, it has developed at uncomfortable speed in some areas while stagnating in others. Following a soul-scouring Maoist insurgency, which ended in 2006, it has ended up as a federal republic – governed, for the time at least, by Maoist rebels turned politicians. Nepal seems always to be racing to catch up with history, and the sense of political excitement in the country is thrillingly palpable.