An animal with the head of a goat, and the body of a cow; that’s what I wanted to see in Thimpu, Bhutan.
It’s an animal called a takin, and I was going to see one – hopefully, so long as they weren’t all hiding – at the Motithang Takin Reserve on the outskirts of the Bhutanese capital.
But, of course, there’s more to Thimpu than just its takins.
Welcome to Bhutan: the Land of the Thunder Dragon; a tiny, landlocked nation in the eastern Himalayas. Capital: Thimpu. Population: 750,000. Home of the Sunkosh, Trongsa, Manas, and Wang Rivers. Home to Gangkhar Puensum, the world’s highest unclimbed peak (7570m).
Did I mention it was tiny?
At 38,000 square kilometres Bhutan is equivalent in size to the Netherlands, or Taiwan, or about half that of Tasmania (Australia’s wee southern isle).
It’s not just small; Bhutan is also a long way from anywhere. Until the mid-20th century it was a genuine Shangri-La; closed off to the rest of the world; inaccessible by road, rail, or air. It’s hard to conceive of such a place existing in the modern world.
Perhaps it couldn’t?
The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 forced Bhutan to rethink its closed-borders policy. Its autonomy was under threat (China and Bhutan are yet to form diplomatic relations, as of 2017, and have been locked in dispute over their borders since the 1950 invasion). Being disconnected from the rest of the world made them vulnerable. India, Bhutan’s immediate neighbour to the south, was their one and only ally. They needed more allies, and they needed them fast. This meant opening their borders. It meant being a part of the modern era. There was no choice in the matter.
And so Bhutan’s precipitous route to modernisation began. It started with the launch of a five-year economic development plan (launched in 1961), that saw the construction of the country’s first all-weather roads, followed by public schools, hospitals, an electricity grid, and a monetary system utilising paper notes. There were social changes too, including the abolishment of slavery, and the termination of the caste system. The first national radio station was inaugurated in 1973 (the radio service only aired in the capital city – the rest of the country didn’t receive radio broadcast until the 1990s) with the first hotel (Hotel Olathang in Paro) opening the following year.
International air travel finally became possible in 1983 with the opening of Paro Airport. And then, a decade and a half later, the big one, the really big one: television! In 1999 the government ban that prohibited television was relaxed, and Bhutan was introduced to the wonders of the idiot box.
For hundreds of years the fertile Thimpu valley was occupied by no more than a scattering of small villages and the odd dzong (monastery fortress).
Then, in 1885, a major battle took place in the Thimpu valley. Ugyen Wangchuck was the victor; he went on to become the first king of a unified Bhutan, with Punakha its capital.
In 1961 the capital shifted to Thimpu.
The city currently has a population of just over 100,000, and with an elevation of 2,648 metres, it’s the 3rd highest capital in the world (after La Paz, Bolivia, 3,650m, and Quito, Ecuador, 2,850m)
The origins of Taschichho Dzong (the name means: Fortress of the Glorious Religion, or, by another translation: Fortress of the Auspicious Doctrine) date back to the 13th Century CE, although most of the structure you see today was built in 1962 shortly after Thimpu was made the capital.
Taschichho Dzong has the honour of accommodating the throne room and offices of the reigning king. It also operates as the seat of the Bhutanese government, and houses the nation’s central monastic body.
Thimpu Chorten, also known as the Memorial Chorten, is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city.
It was built in 1974 to honour the passing of the 3rd king of Bhutan.
The Driglam Namza, or National Dress and Behaviour Code, came into effect in Bhutan in 1989. The Code stipulates that all Bhutanese men should wear gho (a large coat that wraps around the body and drops down to the knee), and all Bhutanese women should wear kira (a dress that reaches the ankles).
The law also compels all new buildings in the country to be constructed in the traditional style, including outhouses, cowsheds, multi-storey office buildings, modern hotels, and even petrol stations.
Motithang Takin Preserve
And at last, the takin. 🙂
Motithang Takin Preserve used to be a zoo, but holding animals captive for human entertainment was felt to be contrary to Buddhist principles, so the animals were set free. The humble takin didn’t go far; they had effectively become domesticated during their time in the zoo, and continued to return to their former home for feeding. Plans changed. The takin were allowed to stay; they were even given a parcel of land to live in, and that is the Motithang Takin Reserve.
Takin are the national animal of Bhutan. Their natural habitat is the alpine meadow. The feed primarily on grass, and they’re most comfortable in climes above 4,000 metres.
Thimpu is one of the few national capitals that lacks its own airport. The closest airport is at Paro, a one-hour drive away, from where you can board flights to Thailand, India, and Nepal.
TAKE NOTE: Bhutan takes a Low Volume High Value Low Impact approach to tourism. All tourists who wish to visit Bhutan – apart from Indian nationals – must enter the country on a package tour, with overnight accommodation only permitted at government-approved hotels. The tours include food, transport, vehicle hire and driver, full time guide, accommodation costs, and entry to all sights and attractions. Tour prices are fixed by the government, and include a tourist tax. The tour costs US$250 a day.