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DICKS ON THE WALL

I’m growing tired of hits from searches on ‘big gay cocks’, ‘dicks with ribbons’, giant willy’ etc. etc. THERE IS NO PORN IN THIS POST. MOVE ON.

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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