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BRAND BHUTAN

‘Am I here now?’

‘Where?’

‘Bhutan. Am I in Bhutan?’

My guide looked at me like I was really, really stupid.

‘Yes,’ he said and kept on walking. He wasn’t giving much away. We’d crossed from India to Bhutan with no formality at all, just walked under a big multicolored arch and that was that.

‘Aren’t you supposed to say ‘Welcome to Bhutan?’

He stopped dead, turned slowly and with a look of perfect blankness, said:

‘Welcome to Bhutan.’

I didn’t like him already.

*

Bongo oozed around like an unctuous Uriah Heep, full of grovel and suck, endlessly telling me he was at my command, that should I need anything he would provide it, if I had an itch he would scratch it.

‘It is my privilege to serve you.’

He spoke very quickly.

‘I am your guide.’

He stood too close.

‘You can trust me…’

I saw his mouth opening and closing. I saw his little pointed Cocky’s tongue darting to and fro.

‘I will show you Bhutan as if you were a guest in my home…’

He was scaring me.

‘Anything you want, anything you need, just call me…’

On and on he went; the grovel of grovels, words tumbling from his lips like shit from a goose. The more he talked the less I listened.

‘What I mostly need,’ I mumbled at Bongo, trying to shut him up, ‘is not a guide – it’s a bodyguard.’

I saw movement in the thin strip of flesh between the sunglasses and the beanie which may have been enthusiasm.

‘Bodyguard…’

This was a concept he liked very much.

‘Yes,’ he said brightly, ‘I will be your bodyguard.’

I think he took his instructions rather too literally.

*

My Bhutanese Bongo was built like a sumo wrestler, wearing a beanie and wrap-around black sunglasses, a big solid lump of a lad, a boy who clearly liked his mo-mo’s. Usually guides are whippet-like, darting creatures: a weight-challenged guide is a rarity – a young lumpen Bhutanese one even more so. He was the most unusually shaped guide I’d ever had – and, come to think of it, the first in a ‘gho’, a beanie and sunglasses, strapped around his head like a mask. He looked like a burglar in a bath-robe.

A gho is a heavy knee-length Bhutanese housecoat tied with a belt, folded in such a way to form a pocket in front of the stomach into which a notebook, a mobile phone, a wallet, a set of keys, a pen, hand-wipes and a small dog could be stuffed with ease. Consequently all Bhutanese men appeared to be overweight, carrying around huge pot-bellies – but really, it was just the stuff they stuck down their gho. It was impossible to tell where Bongo stopped and his luggage started.

He was dressed in a crisp cotton outfit, a pleasing earthy brown number with thin blue stripes that just came to his knees, sensible shoes, long white socks stretched up over bulging calves and, of course, that bloody beanie. Bongo’s beanie seemed to be glued to his head – along with the sunglasses. I don’t recall ever seeing his eyes, instead made an instinctive choice not to look in them, for fear of what I might see.

We had a long drive ahead of us to Thimpu. Traditionally, my job as tourist is to sit in my correct position in the back seat while the guide and driver sit in front, ignore me and chat. The Dog can then be thrown a bone or two of information over the guide’s shoulder when he feels like it and spend the next six hours staring sideways out the back window. This is the way of the known tourist world. So Dogster sat in the front passenger seat. Neither Bongo nor the driver liked that at all.

We set off in silence – a long, long silence. The road was smooth and new and empty, winding up into the hills in a series of hairpin bends through pleasant scenery. I loved the change from the constancy of India. Bhutan was pristine and beautiful, I thought, clean and calm in comparison to the madness just over the border. Phew, what a relief. I relaxed and settled in to the drive.

It was about thirty minutes into the trip when the first road construction appeared. The road from Phuntsholing to Thimpu was being dug up. For the rest of the time, a stop/start grind of bumps and turns, the wonderful view was obscured by dust. It was a long six hours. Where was Shangri La?

My guide wasn’t being very guide-like. Unless I asked, he didn’t offer, instead sat glowering over my right shoulder like a giant cane-toad. It was difficult to tell just what he was thinking. As his face caved out, rather than in, any expression was already botoxed by lard; he looked perennially innocent and slightly surprised.

Bongo was no thudding fool – he was stupidly smart, which in a young man is far more dangerous. He thought he was an excellent tour guide – but he wasn’t. He thought he had it all worked out – but like most young men of twenty-three – he didn’t. He thought he knew about the world – but he’d never set foot outside the Kingdom. He knew of no world but Bhutan – nor, as became clear, had any interest in it.

Dog was from outer space. Outer space was foreign. He didn’t like it. He didn’t approve of it. He certainly didn’t want to go there. Bongo looked down on his clients through a gormless provincial nationalism that smacked of piety, a righteous certainty that was beginning to crawl right up my nose.

He knew only three things; all tourists are really rich, old and stupid. Here was another one of them.

*

It’s a tough life being a tourist guide. He told me all about it. There are seven hundred and ten of them, mostly freelance. They are not an overly handsome group of men – you can go see for yourself. On The Tourism Council of Bhutan website each comes complete with his details and a passport mug shot; all except one. My ‘cultural guide’ is license number 0775. Unlike every other one of his seven hundred and nine associates, his photograph is missing.

For seven months a year there are more guides than tourists in the Kingdom – literally. For three months a year there are twice as many guides as tourists. The bread and butter comes in the festival months; September, October, November and March/April – then the punters flood in. This is the feast. Everybody gets a Guernsey, even the worst of the worst guides get a gig; hotels are booked, over-booked, double-booked and then some more; tourists are camped out in the back shed, complaining bitterly as they usher the chickens out of their bathroom – it’s a feeding frenzy in Bhutan. The rest of the time it’s famine. I guess a freelance guide has to maximize his opportunities.

‘I had one client who was a good tipper,’ he chirped up, ‘she gave me a thousand pounds.’

My jaw dropped.

‘A thousand British Pounds!’

I swiveled around in the front seat to face him. ‘I don’t believe it. How long were you traveling for?

‘Ten days, ’he said.

‘That’s a hundred quid a day!  You must have slipped her a pink mo-mo or two, pal, to get a tip like that.’

I knew where this was leading. This was no accidental conversation – already it was clear that I was expected to cough up a similar amount – in fact, these figures were just a ball-park – I was to be with him for seventeen expensive pre-paid days; my tip would logically be much, much more – with not even the debatable consolation of Bongo’s weeny mo-mo to save the day.

I thought he was lying.

‘I had an old man who left me eighteen hundred dollars after two weeks.’ he lied some more.

I laughed.

‘I saved his life.’

‘How did you save his life?’

‘He was falling from a thousand foot cliff. It was certain death.’

Was this why Bongo stood at my left shoulder all the time – just that little bit too close? I thought he was being my bodyguard. Was he standing prepared to rescue me if I stumbled and fell – or push me off? Where were these thousand foot cliffs, anyway?

Lying, Bongo, lying, lying.

I don’t like liars. I’ve had to tolerate many liars in a previous life. I don’t do that anymore – now I trap them, kill them and eat them. Bongo was a good liar; he was educated, glib and could lie like a Trojan – but Bongo hadn’t met Dogster. Dog had once been the bullshit artist supreme – he knew an apprentice bullshitter when he saw one. But Bongo couldn’t lie with his eyes. That’s why those sunglasses were surgically glued to his face.

We were an hour out of Phuntsholing with sixteen days to go. Oh dear, I thought, this isn’t going to be fun at all.

We drove and drove and drove some more, ploughed on through the dust to our first destination.

‘All this roadwork will be finished in three months time,’ the spirit of Bhutan said expansively

‘And what makes you say that, Bongo?’

‘The new King has decreed it.’

‘Ah-h-h-h, of course.’

I was starting to collect his lies.  There were little lies, damn lies, lies of omission and lies of faith. The new King’s mystical powers to solve the Kingdom’s transport problems I would put in the ‘lies of faith’ category. In matters of the monarchy no superlative was too extreme, no perfection more perfect, no wisdom more wise – Bhutan seemed to hover somewhere between Thailand and North Korea in its adoration of the latest, greatest leader. Bongo led the pack.

I think he actually believed it.

He worked on the principle of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ so his lies of omission were manifold and various. They happened all the time. Bongo kept all information to himself. Where we were going next, what was there, how long we would stay, how long the drive was to be… nothing. This was his way of control. I was to be told what he wanted me to hear – and nothing else, maneuvered into an attitude of dumb compliance. With no other avenue of information I was effectively in his hands.

This gets a little creepy after a while, once you work out what is going on. He was body-guarding me within an inch of my life. Whichever way this pans out, I thought, I’m on the losing team; one of me, two of them. The driver is going to remain silent for sixteen days – its Bongo and me, into infinity. I stared out to the pine-covered slopes all around me. I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.

*

Next morning we were off to see the sights of Thimpu. There was a nice enough temple up on top of a hill that may, or may not have had some importance – but my guide failed to mention it in any coherent form. I still don’t know what it was. We walked around the outside very rapidly then I was shoved inside into the dark. No photographs. Then it was down the hill and out. I managed to grab one photograph of some ancient graffiti in the ancient concrete on the ancient floor.

I love you Namgay

‘Wow, isn’t that incredible. That must’ve been here for thousands of years,’ I said to Bongo.

He stared at me with that ‘you are a really strange man’ look he’d been practicing. Obviously I could strike ‘irony’ off my list of accomplishments. He was anxious to get to the next stop on our tour – the radio tower.

Thrill piled upon thrill as I observed the radio tower – and the pretty view. We even opted for exercise and walked down the hill to see the ‘zoo’ – an enclosure with three of the national animals standing stupidly under a tree. The guide grunted and said ‘Taxin‘ – or something like that. I wasn’t listening. Apparently these animals, a cross between a goat and a very confused moose, had been liberated from their cages by Young Prince Bhutan the Magnificent when he took over the throne but, having been freed, they just stood in much the same spot anyway, completely content to look at the same three trees and munch on the same bamboo as they always had. Eventually the Prince had to put the cage back up to stop people feeding them mo-mo’s.

I felt there was some profound Bhutanese metaphor here, but I couldn’t quite work it out.

I stood and watched these three odd things for as long as I could reasonably feign interest. They just kept standing there. One looked around. Then he looked back. That was about it. Bongo was lost in the magnificence of it all.

‘Very special,’ he said but as I was realizing, he was a Bhutophile. Everything in Bhutan was very special – the more special it was, the more special he was.

‘Mmmm-m-m,’ I replied, ‘can we go now?’

Thimpu was a construction zone. We toured the many building sites. Bongo couldn’t understand my lack of enthusiasm. To him all this newness was thrilling. I took to taking pictures of stray dogs and workmen. The National Memorial Chorten, built in 1976, was being renovated. That was covered in scaffolding. His Latest Majesty Young Prince Bhutan the Magnificent was going to get crowned sometime soon but he wouldn’t say when. Auspicious signs must be calculated. Seven hens must lay seven green eggs on a day beginning with thunder and lightening – that kind of thing. The new road from Paro to Thimpu must be finished. Bhutan was getting ready. Everything old was gonna be new again. Now even the famous river-side markets were being relocated and enclosed in traditional Bhutanese surroundings, just near a very beautiful old covered bridge.

‘Stop!’ I gasped.

I liked this bridge. Finally, this is what I came here to see, I said to myself, old stuff – it was a perfect photo opportunity, so naturally, I took many photos. Bongo was bemused. We walked across, admiring the prayer flags – the dappled sunlight; so old, I thought, so unique, so… Bhutanese.

‘When was this built?’ I asked Bongo.

‘Last year,’ he said proudly.

I sighed and went back to photographing the dogs. As it turned out, they were older than the bridge.

On an open-cut face of rock on the road I saw more graffiti.

‘Do you know about Karma, Bongo? I mused.

*

It was a very gay willy indeed, complete with wings, hairy scrotum and two twirling ribbons, painted in bright festive colours. A very accomplished willy, I thought, an assured line with a dynamic, an aesthetic that appealed to me. The flying cocks of Bhutan are famous.  It’s a rather jolly custom, somewhat at odds with prim Bhutanese Bongo – but he was a large bellied lad, he probably hadn’t seen his flying willy for quite some time. He seemed to find the whole topic rather distasteful.

‘Would you like to tell me about these willies on the wall, Bongo?’ I asked, trying to give him some opportunity to be a guide.

Bongo didn’t reply. He was fiddling with his mobile phone. He and that mobile were joined at the hip. He loved his mobile.

‘No’ he said eventually.

I was driven to the school of something or other. This was classrooms of children making Bhutanese-y stuff, producing row after row of awful craft goods that all looked exactly the same. They were preserving the National Heritage apparently, and didn’t look too happy about it. Their faces had that same grey ennui that I’ve seen in similar establishments all over Asia. Tourists come, that face said, tourists go, they take my picture. O.K., whatever they like – I’ll just sit here and keep doing this bloody boot.

The students were all dressed in identical uniforms, sitting two by two at identical wooden desks, each with an identical object they were learning how to fashion; a classroom of identical hands, a classroom of identical dolls, a row of identical folkloric boots made by a row of identical pupils. Upstairs was the thanka room, next door embroidery, beside them a room where young men drew the same dragon over and over again. I had the distinct feeling I was not the first tourist to ever go inside.

Of course, Bhutan’s National School of Repetition was followed by a compulsory stop at the National Shop of Repetition where Bongo enthusiastically announced;

‘Everything is made – not by the students – but by their teachers! Very cheap…’

It was Tibetocrap, of course, that generic jumble of knock-off and copies of something that once came from Lhasa or somewhere ‘up there’, that flood of tat that fills the walls of tourist shops from one end of the Himalayas to the other. It’s all Tibetocrap. I’ve bought rather a lot of it on occasion.

‘Well, Master Bongo, those teachers must have been very busy men – their exact same stuff is in every shop from Kathmandu to Darjeeling…’

I looked deep into the wrap-around sunglasses.

‘Stop lying to me,’ I whispered, ‘and don’t ever bring to me to shops like this again.’

We walked away.

 

Main Street Thimpu isn’t a long street. You walk up a few blocks, then back. Twenty tourist shops, all selling variations on the same theme; Tibetocrap. I reeled away, boggled at the prices. Think Kathmandu. Exactly the same stuff. Multiply the prices by five.

‘Show me some things that are from Bhutan,’ I asked repeatedly.

‘There aren’t any.’

The shopkeepers couldn’t have cared less whether I bought anything or not. Several clearly had no concern whether I lived or died. A couple of the less disinterested mentioned the famous Bhutanese textiles. The weavings take three months to complete – they sell for thousands of dollars to collectors.

‘Show me some of that, then.’

‘We don’t have any.’

‘It’s expensive, this stuff.’

‘Yes,’ the shopkeepers would answer and smile. One looked at me with gimlet eyes.

‘You can afford it,’ she said.

And she was right. All of us tourists to Bhutan could afford it. We were paying through the nose to be there.

Bhutan has done a very clever thing. They have created an exclusive product and by pricing it at a premium have made it seem special, hard to get to, unique. The Government’s tourism policy is simple. It’s a ‘high value, no risk – low volume’ policy – which is a euphemism for ‘high income, we don’t care – keep the riff-raff out.’ The Department of Tourism decides who is allowed in. A visa is about $20 but you can’t get one unless you have pre-booked a Bhutan tour package with a Bhutan tour company – that will set you back a compulsory minimum $250 a day. At base rates the room might be spartan, the bed hard and food a little dire – but nowadays you can upgrade – a mere $1250 a day should see you through in style. Then you’ll have the ‘real’ Bhutan Experience, that groovy fairground ride, be whisked through picturesque valleys, glided through the sights, see Shangri-La from the Aman resorts, through rose-tinted Aman eyes.

Base rates or high – once you walk out your hotel door the sights, the scenery and the culture are exactly the same. A cultural tourist trail has been developed – not difficult in a country where there’s one airport, two ‘cities’, basically one long road from one side to another and a set number of historical things to see.

There’s a dzong here and a dzong there, here a dzong, there a dzong, everywhere a dzong, dzong – and lot of trees and scenery in between. If it’s not a dzong it’s a bridge or a monastery, a chorten or a farm house – all looking, to my untrained eye, exactly the same. Maybe that’s why they drew the willies on the wall, so you can tell one house from another. Tourists are driven from one to the other to look at them. That’s the deal. They get in the car, drive four hours through the trees and scenery and stop, get out and look, they take pictures, then get back in their car and drive through more trees and scenery to the next thing.

The historical dzongs are a bit thin on the ground so additional delights have been planted along the tourist trail over the last twenty years to pad out the adventure; the textile museum, the paper-making factory, the replica farm house and folk museum, the School for National Repetition, the National Library, the National Chorten – on and on, a catalogue of National things being created before your eyes. Link them all with a nice new road, a tea shop or two and the Designated Tourist Restaurants, top with a clump of mediocre hotels in each location and there you have it, the digestive tube of Bhutan tourism, in one end and out the other, a great pulsing earth worm of clean Americans, tour-group Japanese and earnest Europeans.

It’s a perfect brand name destination. No visible poverty, no wandering cows, no in your face hustlers, no smoking, no traffic, no pollution, no crime – just beautiful mountain scenery, a parade of perfect dzongs and a quaint gho wearing culture just complex enough to be interesting. It’s a great place for soft tourism, wide eyed, fresh-aired, Shangri La-la-la-la tourism and that’s what the best guides will deliver – a smooth and fabricated ride through sylvian fields and soaring dzongs with a painted willy here, an archery tournament there and a candy-floss of dross about Gross National Happiness. Welcome to Bhutan-Land, the happiest Kingdom of all.

‘Wow, this is a great place.’

In an attempt to counteract Bongo’s lumpen personality, today I had chosen an attitude of positive reinforcement and limitless enthusiasm. I hadn’t much option. Hating him wasn’t going to help. So, adopt Plan B – approach him with love. We were en route to Punakha heading deep into Bhutan. We weren’t coming back for a year. This is how it felt.

This was the first road I’d been on that hadn’t been dug up – and very beautiful it was. Very autumnal, very clean, forests of white prayer flags arranged artistically atop rocky crags, as if placed there by some Bhutanese scenic designer – all delicious, but every minute with this guide was sucking my spirit. I could only see Bongo, not Bhutan.

Right up at the top, at Duchula Pass, just before the obligatory tourist tea and pee stop, we’d stopped at a wonderful old memorial thing; many prayer flags over the road; beautiful view. It was obviously very important, but I forget why. I’m sure I had the prepared speech from my guide but it has vanished from my memory – something about ‘the peace and prosperity of the nation.’ There were one hundred and eight little square brick houses called chortens around a bigger version of the same, all painted white with crumbling old bricks and gold circles stuck on. Very impressive.

There was a tiny grunt of pleasure from my guide. He looked rather like a clown, standing there in his striped national costume, legs splayed, that fat ‘gho’ stomach poking out at the distant mountains, looking up at the big square thing with pride. Bongo was very reverential. It was all a bit creepy. This was a patriotic, religious, right wing bigot of a boy, perfect fodder for the Bhutan Marines. In an attempt to ingratiate myself I took many pictures.

‘When was this built?’

‘Four years ago.’

The Great Bhutanese Scenic Designer had struck again.

We walked the short distance to the designated tourist Tea ‘n Pee in silence. While he made many, many calls on his mobile I had tea and hovered over the heater. It was cold up there.

The building was a ramshackle dump with bad coffee, awful souvenirs and pictures of all five Bhutanese kings up high on the wall. Only tourists went there. But it was, at least, more than five years old – ratty and real. Just above it, fifty yards up the hill, there’s a nearly finished brand-new Tea ‘n Pee. Obviously ratty and real doesn’t cut too much mustard with the Great Scenic Designer of Bhutan. The present one may already be gone. But not to worry – I’m sure the new one will look even older than the old one.

*

Obviously The Great Scenic Designer hadn’t yet made it to Wangdi. The township was a ramshackle line of shops perched along a ridge, old and faded and falling down, each one a little universe. I rather liked it. The shopkeepers couldn’t give a monkey’s nut about this tourist and his lumpen guide. They had nothing that we wanted to buy.

‘What a great little place,’ I said.

‘They’re going to demolish it soon,’ the guide said proudly. I sighed. Wangdi was on the list too.

This dzong was a bit ratty. Imposing but a little run down. Like the one in Punakha it was all but deserted. Three men shared a joke on an upper story landing, two monks wandered down a corridor in the distance and six chickens perched outside a door marked ‘Storeroom’. I took their picture. The chickens, I mean. They would go well with my pictures of stray dogs and scaffolding.

The guide was off on his mobile phone. He paused, just long enough to grunt ‘No pictures,’ as I wandered out of the first courtyard and deeper inside. I passed two monks crouched on the floor in a side room – above their heads hung skinny joints of meat, drying in the air. Both the monks and the meat had been there for a very long time. I took secret photographs until my guide reappeared and hissed at me. Further in. A pod of monks rushed past me and swooped up a flight of steps leading to the inner temple.

He suddenly stopped dead and said ‘We can’t go in.’

I went very, very quiet. Those who know me recognize that this is when the Dog is at his most dangerous.

We rounded a bend and there she was; the Punakha Dzong, settled gracefully on her perch at the confluence of two rivers. There isn’t a tourist or a photographer who doesn’t take this shot. It’s the most magnificent of buildings – a national treasure.

In 1994 this place was in wreckage, nearly washed away by a freak glacial flood. As a matter of national pride the King assembled his artisans and began the long process of rebuilding, restoring – and where necessary recreating what had been there – with a few improvements on the way. The reconstruction of the dzong brought about a revival in traditional building skills in Bhutan – and a huge labour force of skilled men and women able to produce instant antiques. I was walking around their supreme achievement and a most remarkable place it was. Vast, meticulously restored or recreated, it was impossible to say which, the slate courtyard was like an empty stage. Clearly we were late for the show – all the actors had gone home. The place was empty, apart from two monklets watching a man in a basket being hoisted up a very high white wall with a paintbrush in his hand. I took pictures of that, of course, prompting a ‘his-s-s-tt’ from my guide.

‘No cameras from now on,’ he said. He swiftly led me further in to this extraordinary structure and deposited me in a vast, empty hall. It must have been three stories high, covered from top to bottom with rich, intricate wall paintings and those long dangly things they seem to like in temples. Great place. My little Sony digital camera was heating up in my pocket in frustration.

‘Take me out! Take me out and use me!’ it was saying.

‘No pictures…’

Sumo could read my mind. He could channel my Sony. What’s more he was going to be po-faced and precious about it. He hovered at the door, ready to body-slam me into the carpet if I took a picture. He was, of course, anxious to go. I made him wait.

It was three tries before he got me out but not before my inevitable question.

‘So when was this built?’

He had to think for a minute. He reached deep into that vacant mind and words began to tumble out of his mouth.

‘This dzong has been here for five hundred years… ‘

‘But when was where we’re standing now built?

‘Three years ago.’

I was beginning to get confused. Everything I was seeing was a restoration, a replica or a new thing entirely – and it was impossible to tell which was which. I was in a Bhutan-land, a reconstructed, re-painted, re-invented version of itself.

I guess the real question was; did it matter anyway?

Soon, across one of the rivers that surround this amazing building, there will be another, perfectly recreated, covered bridge. I’ve seen the plans. It will look a thousand years old the day it opens. All those skills learnt on the restoration of the Punakha Dzong are traveling the country, transforming dzong after dzong, tarting them up to within an inch of their former selves. Better than their former selves, in fact.

And why shouldn’t they? What was this feeling rattling around in my craw? Why was I feeling somehow cheated? Why did it all feel like I was visiting an abandoned movie set? Why was it all so… artificial? And what set of expectations led me to think otherwise? Maybe I had a case of Shangri-La-La.

 

At the end of dinner Bongo came by. He wasn’t in his clown uniform, the first time I’d seen him in civvies. For once he didn’t have his sunglasses on. This was the first time I’d looked in his eyes. It was like looking into the void. He loomed over me while I sat, cocked his head and smiled. I thought he might have been slightly drunk. I certainly was. Something was wrong. He had a very strange look in his eye.

‘Have you had a good dinner?’

‘Yes, I nodded.

‘Have you had a very great dinner?’

‘Yes,’ I said, not knowing where this was leading.

‘Have you had a very wonderful day?’

I sighed.

‘I did that for you. I arranged everything. Anything you want I can do. I am your host. You are my guest. I will show you Bhutan. You don’t need a guide book. You have me. You are in my hands. I will make sure you get the best room in the hotel, the best food…’

He went on in this vein, uncomfortably so, for a long time. It was the usual grovelogue but now delivered in a strangely threatening way. I was under his control. I was his property. He was my bodyguard. Nothing would get in without his permission. Unfortunately that meant nothing would get out either. He loomed even closer, sullen and surly, a dead, scary look in his eyes.

‘Make sure you remember that.’

With those choice words, he lurched away.

Gawd, I thought. Get me outta here…

*

Was it me? Was my local tour company just a smart operator, a website and a mobile phone? Was my oafish, lumpen child-guide really spawned from Satan? Was everything in Bhutan built last year? Have they actually dug up every inch of road in the Kingdom? Was it really that… err… dull?

Or had the dog gone mad? Was it me? Was he a threatening, passive-aggressive control freak? Or was it me? Was I having some kind of paranoid fit? I was on my own. Was I making all this up? Was it me?

We were heading deep into the black heart of Bhutan, just Bongo the bully, Dreary the mute – and me. There are a lot of trees in this country. I realized that I was going to see all of them. This wasn’t going to be fun.

At breakfast Bongo was summoned.

‘This morning,’ I said very slowly, ‘there is a change of plan.’

So it was that Mr. Dogster found himself rather unexpectedly in Kathmandu.

*

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