l e t t e r  f r o m  b h u t a n

 r o r y  m c e w e n 

Dear Ron,

You go to Calcutta Airport and ask for the Jamair desk. This is not as easy as it sounds, for the desks in Calcutta Airport are merely desks, and they become “The Jamair Desk” or “The Air India Desk” when a scribbled sign is put up above the desk. This can happen at any time with no warning, so you can be speaking to the man at the Air India desk about flying to, say, Benares, and he will change the sign on you, quite slowly and deliberately, while looking in your eyes, so that the conversation will then have to shift and tack and rearrange itself to accommodate the fact that you and your baggage are now bound for Bangkok on Thailand Airways, since you are now standing in the “Thai Air Desk.” This arrangement has the effect of keeping the passengers on their toes, and on each others’ toes, as they dash like lemmings from one desk to another, ending up wild eyed and in deep shock on strange aeroplanes bound for places they never thought they’d see.

Jamair is a private Indian airway that used to have two aeroplanes but now has only one. The other one crashed before I arrived at Calcutta Airport. “It was very old, very old, and it just got tired,” was how the Jamair official explained it to me. I didn’t ask him to explain it to me, he insisted. “How old is the other one, the, er, one we’re flying in?” I couldn’t restrain myself from asking; “It is thirty years old next year,” he beamed.

We got in the 29 year old Dakota; parts of it certainly were that old, in fact much older. All the rivets along the wings were loose, and the wings seemed to beat up and down – I think it helped us to keep aloft. A man came down the gangway with a large lump of cotton wool, which we were invited to pull at and fill our ears. We landed in several fields, ending up at a place called Bagdogra, which appeared to be under siege, from the number of tanks lumbering around and Russian jet fighters screaming overhead. It is a few miles from the frontier of East Pakistan.

A very smart soldier greeted us. He was different looking to anyone else there, with a flat Mongolian face, and DRUK GUARD on his shoulder. A captain in the Bhutanese army, sent by the Queen from Paro,11 hours jeep drive away.

No one ever got into Bhutan, much, except Tibetan traders, until the Bhutanese were persuaded by Nehru to build a road into India following the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1959. This road, known as the Indo-Bhutanese Highway, was completed in 1962. It was built under the supervision of the Indians, by Nepalese road-gangs, and it winds up through the jungly mountains that completely close off Bhutan from India along the Southern border, ending up at Thimbu, the capital of Bhutan. It is a narrow road with a blacktop surface which crumbles at the sides. It is subject to frequent landslides, as the Indians have only the simplest of notions about road-building, which mostly hinge around very large charges of dynamite, which loosen up whole mountain sides and cause them to collapse at the hint of rain. Bhutan is one of the wettest areas in the entire world.

Before this road was constructed, ten years ago, Bhutan had only been visited by a few dozen Europeans during its entire history; the wheel was unknown and it was absolutely impossible to travel over most of the country. Even since 1961, very few people, relatively, had entered, as the only way you can attain entry is through formal invitation of the King or Queen.

I looked up at the blue barriers of hills as we drove through the tea plantations….

We spent a night at Phuntsoling, just over the border, in the Bhutanese Government Guest House where, 5 years before, the progressive Prime Minister Jigme Dorji, the present Queen’s older brother, had been assassinated while playing bridge on the veranda. That night I couldn’t sleep – cockroaches 5 inches long climbed all over my mosquito net, the frogs crashed around the room, and the night was made hideous by the whirring, screeching, howling, zooming, zipping, zapping, creeping & scratching of an incredible variety of unseen birds, reptiles, mammals and insects; also, according to the Queen’s ADC, whom the smart soldier turned out to be, a substantial number of Ghosts. “Many many ghosts in Bhutan,” he kept insisting.

The next morning early we set off in our jeep into the hills. The road cuts through the deep tropical jungle that covers the whole of the Southern part of the country, and huge butterflies frequently flew lazily across it, flapping from orchid to rhododendron. Every flower and tree seemed to be of a different variety – there are in fact more species of wildflower in Bhutan than in any other single country in the world.

We soon climbed up to 8,000 feet, the air got chilly, and we lunched on an Alpine slope, built a fire, and soon had a crowd of ragged sheep-herders sharing the meal, barefoot and barelegged, wearing the kho, the Bhutanese all-purpose garment, which is a floor-length cloak that they bind up above their knees, leaving a big pouch all the way round hanging over the belt, which they stuff with everything from a 12 inch knife to sacks of rice and baby sheep.

On we drove arriving at length at Paro valley. Red earth, tiny fields built up the mountain sides, with crops of maize and rice and buckwheat; houses with roofs held down by boulders, scattered down the valley, the whole thing, the whole atmosphere, dominated by a massive fortified monastery at the Northern neck of the valley, with the Himalayas rising sheer up behind it, their peaks hidden in clouds.

Down below the monastery is the Queen’s palace. It is built on 3 levels like a wedding cake, square, with curving Chinese looking roofs, bells hanging at the corners, clinking in the breeze, wood and plaster, every inch painted and carved in fantastic gold and green, sienna and silver, brown and blue Buddhist symbols and scenes, gods and animals.

Bare legged servants scurrying and bowing, dark steep staircases leading into a long painted room, dim and scarlet and green. A low sofa, very hard, and the Queen’s nephew, English speaking, jolly and smiling. At one end of the room, a wonderful, very old Tibetan Tanka, a Buddhist scroll painting; at the other a radiogram, with records by the Bhutanese bagpipe band, Frank Sinatra and Mantovani. (No electricity, however, except at rare intervals, and then very wavery, Frankie’s voice going from bass to falsetto, and the sudden realisation that that is what they thought he really sounded like).

The Queen is in Thimbu, with the flu; please make yourself at home in any way you want – would you like to fish? hunt bear or tigers? or blue mountain sheep or takin? Yes yes, indeed, everything, we’d like to hunt everything, including flowers and butterflies.

Then off up the valley and up on mule back through hanging forests of rhododendrons, up a slippery mud path and over a 10,000 foot high pass into the Ha valley, climbing up through the dripping trees, the ground carpeted with innumerable primulas, for six hours, the servants walking, carrying luggage and tents on their backs, singing and shouting and joking, all the way up. Then a further five hours stumbling down the other side, too steep to ride the mules and horses, looking out over the deep valley to the hills of Tibet, only 6 hours by mule train away.

We passed a monastery called The Tiger’s Nest, perched on the side of a vertiginous cliff face. The ADC, Rinzi Dorji, said that a lama lived there who went flying over the valley one fine evening.

Further down the mountain into the valley we came out into a yak grazing ground and found a family of yak herders, living in black yak-hair tents, tough as wire wool. They said that they had heard a yeti, or abominable snowman, only 2 nights before, sniffing round the edge of the camp. It was easy to believe them. They had a huge black Tibetan dog, guarding the yaks against the wolves. Wolves there certainly were, roaming at night in small mobile gangs, taking cows and yaks and chickens from all over. Buddhists are supposed to not take life, but no one seemed to have qualms about bumping off bears or wolves, or trout, or chickens, as long as they made a suitable sacrifice to placate the right deity.

We camped in Ha, as beautiful a place as ever my eyes lit upon, for some days. In the daytime we rode down to the river and fished for trout, clambering down the wild river bed, all strewn with great rough boulders, washed down by the constant flow, catching dozens of silver fighting trout, which had been brought into the country from Kashmir only thirty years before, coming originally from Scotland in the days of the Raj. These were very delicious to eat, and provided our staple diet, for Bhutanese food is rough at best, at worst unbelievable – sort of smashed up rotting meat boiled in rancid yak butter, with red hot chilis on the side.

At night we sat on a carpet of highly scented pine needles, with wild azaleas and rhododendrons adding different scents at every shift in the breeze, while the servants sang and played games, like the “bonfire game,” which consisted of building an immense bonfire, ten feet high, then waiting till it burnt down to about 5 feet high, then taking turns in jumping through it. Later I discovered that they have thicker skins than Europeans, which explained a lot of things, such as the fact that they didn’t mind wading through the glacially cold streams up to their waists, or sleeping out without tents at night at 10,000 feet – or the fact that in the Queen’s Palace there was no provision of any kind for heating.

Peter Steele, an English doctor and explorer, had done a goitre survey of Bhutan and couldn’t understand why he kept breaking needles when he injected them. He measured their skin and found it nearly twice as thick as his own. Little known facts to add to your collection.

The national sport is archery. One day we went down Ha Valley about ten miles of horseback and our servants challenged the head man (or Thrimpon) of Ha to an archery contest. It went on all day and we won. The “prize” was 2 bottles of Bhutanese rum, a spirit closely related to methylated spirits, tasting like a rubbery version of paint stripper.

The archery grounds are 150 yards long, with a wooden target 3 feet high, 1 foot wide at each end. You have two shots each, alternate players from each team. Two points for hitting the target; if no one hits it, one point for the nearest to it. You fire your shots and run down the other end to dance in front of the target and disconcert your opponents, or invoke a variety of deities to blow the arrows off target or blur the shooter’s vision. It is very exciting, and the teams get quite out of control sometimes, taking out their immense knives made out of old jeep springs and lopping off the hands, ears etc. of opponents who have done too well or otherwise driven them temporarily out of their skulls. The men of Bhutan probably spend 50% of their adult lives on archery, from what I could judge. The women, on the other hand, spend their lives tilling the fields, or building the houses, or having children, or carrying huge loads on their backs. At the same time they are highly independent, and divorce is quite a simple affair; sexually they are very free, and before marriage they sleep with anyone who takes their fancy. The Bhutanese generally discuss sex a great deal. But then who doesn’t?

The Queen returned from Thimbu, having recovered from her flu. She is Bhutanese, part Sikkim etc. She was educated in India, Switzerland and England. She is 35 years old; small and delicate, though very tough, in fact, physically – so often went for camping trips on mule back, and walked for miles over rough tracks, collecting flowers. The history of the politics of` the Royal Household is too tangled to relate, but suffice it to say that she and her husband live apart and each has his and her own sphere of influence, though the king is virtually all-powerful, whereas the Queen’s power is mainly with the monks and the Church.

She speaks quite good English, and is excessively polite and soft spoken. She is also surrounded by toadies, all of them quite useless, from her idle and incompetent secretary (always to be found on the archery grounds, though he’s not even good at that) to her doctor, a devious Sikkimese gentleman with no medical qualifications whatever. There are also the court painter, responsible for all the decoration of the monasteries throughout the land, all the masks and dresses for the religious dances, saddle-cloths for the king etc. etc. (he had 250 people working for “him”) and a court musician, Dope, by name, Dopey by nature, who often sang at her feet of an evening, incredibly long and boring ballads. We had many musical evenings; I had brought my guitar, which I was glad of, for they enjoyed being sung to, and all responded with songs and ballads of their own. Particular favorites with Her Majesty, you will be interested to hear, were “Polwarth on the Blue” and the “Sinking of the Titanic.”

Then we set off for the East, along the new road, only open since January (this was May), to visit Punakha, the ancient capital of the country, and cross over the Pele-la, the highest point of the roads in Bhutan, about 11,500 ft. Some of the passes are far higher, and can be crossed with difficulty on mules; I think there is a pass 20,000 ft. high!

We set off with 3 jeeps, five palace servants and the Queen’s ADC, the amazing Captain Rinzi Dorji, hitherto mentioned. It was very hot until we came to the first pass out of Paro valley, the Doichu-La (La is Tibetan for pass), and started climbing up through rhododendron forests, up into cold mist, and down into the Punakh valley. The drive took seven hours. When we reached Punakha it was about 3pm., and an hour was spent recruiting local labor to transport our camping gear, food etc. on foot up the valley. The Queen had given us permission to stay in the King’s game reserve, and fish in the Mo River in the part reserved for him and his family. Holy Cow what a place! A great hurtling green glacial stream, roaring straight down from the high Himalayas, its bed littered with huge boulders, and full of colossal trout. It was like no fishing I’ve ever seen; the river is icy cold, yet the banks are virtually tropical. The vegetation grows right down to the edge of the water, tangled briars, bushes, shrubs and trees of every description, out of which come six foot long cobras, and through and around which glide quantities of black swallowtailed butterflies (Papilio Paris and Papilio Krishna, I later ascertained) the size of small birds. Many, many butterflies fly all around; from tiny skippers and blues to silverlines and hairstreaks, fritillaries and tortoiseshells, huge white ones, rich brown ones, azure with chocolate stripes (the Chocolate Tiger), and Birdwings, the greatest of all butterflies, nine or ten inches across, flying so fast you can’t believe it.

The first thing I did was tell the servants to make me a butterfly net. They appropriated the mosquito net belonging to the Queen’s nephew, who was accompanying us (“Us” being myself and Pamela Egremont, who was the means of my entry, she being a friend of the Queen’s), and produced in a flash a gigantic net, 2 feet across, and lashed to a small tree 8 feet long. From then on they fell about themselves with Bhutanese howls of laughter as Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday was acted and reenacted before their slanting eyes, with me leaping and plunging after these amazing butterflies: I caught over 30 different varieties in about 4 days of hunting.

In addition to the butterflies there were insects of every conceivable variety, from giant grasshoppers no smaller, I swear, than medium sized fox terriers to stick insects and tortoise beetles which are brilliant, polished gold with circular plexiglass skirts -- [drawing] sort of. At night our tents shook from the impact of vast unknown flying things, and you could hear leopards coughing. There are tigers, too, but we never saw or heard one.

In the day we fished for trout. We used flies, which the Bhutanese had hardly seen before (a few had, such as the ADC who had been to England), and, to judge from the results, the trout had never seen.

The fish ran up to 25 pounds, maybe much more, since no one had really fished for them. Luckily, I brought my fly-tying equipment – the fish had very sharp teeth and tore the flies to pieces in no time. I hadn’t tied flies for many years, any more than I had caught butterflies, but found myself gripped with the fervor that I felt at 15, chasing High Brown Fritillaries in Alice Holt Forest, or turning out a deadly Olive Quill. [drawing; not available] I recommend it, it is amazing therapy.

Well, we spent some days in this strange place, and then went over the Pele-La, on the new road. It was raining torrents and the whole thing was crumbling and crashing around us, rocks six feet across thundering down onto the road in front and behind, the jeep getting stuck in slimy mud. Finally we got over the top and down the other side, but only for about 13 miles, when we were brought to a definite halt by a really grown up landslide, which looked as if it would take ten years to shift.

We stayed up there for the inside of a week, finding all sorts of plants and flowers, including woods full of Lilium Giganticum Superbum, whose name is far from hyperbolic – the lily is snow-white and seven feet high, with a scent that hangs in the woods like velvet drapery. Then we had a very hairy drive back, just getting through as the monsoon started in earnest. We went to Thimbu, the capital. There is a night club in Thimbu. It is called the Pelki Club. It is just a wooden shack with a painted sign outside, but it is the only night club in Bhutan, and it is run by the king’s half brother.

The ADC suggested we should go. “Wonderful Floor Show,” he said. We couldn’t wait. So at 7pm sharp we sat in the smelly darkness of the Pelki Club and admired the decor – stag antlers rounds the walls, red velvet, and checked linoleum on the table tops. The other clients consisted of 4 Indian road engineers having a very noisy curry. But the band! They were Indian, a quintet. Drums, steel guitar, sax, trumpet, piano. They all played simultaneously, as hard as it is possible to beat drums or blow a trumpet, but with absolutely no reference of any kind one to the other, nor, collectively, to a single tune at any given moment. About one every five minutes the Law of Averages appeared to decree that several of them played a vaguely recognisable phrase from say, “Night and Day,” or “The Sunny Side of the Street,” at the same time. Otherwise, it flowed forth like the Ganges. They would stop, apparently obeying a herd instinct, and then the leader would announce a new number, and it would start up again.

I swear if you put them on an LP they would sell a billion in royalties, for no art could have conjured up such an indescribable and hilarious cacophony. The next thing that happened was that I was announced by the ADC as a visiting vocal star from Scotland. So I sprang onto the platform and launched into “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Horrors! The band started up behind me, fired by a now uncontrollable enthusiasm. The trumpet went berserk, hitting higher notes in his mind than Harry Jones ever knew existed, and producing some inhuman braying noises that, being blasted straight into the 1941 vintage BBC type microphone, knocked out the amplification. However, the band now couldn’t be stopped – chorus after chorus came tumbling out, the key, when it was possible to locate it, varying wildly between Bb and F, the melody totally unrecognizable, the tempo speeding up every few bars. After quarter of an hour, perhaps half an hour, of standing on the platform bellowing soundlessly into the howling hurricane, I figured the only way to stop it was to step down, which I did. The band went on to a final frenetic climax, all standing up, jostling each other for a share of the defunct microphone. The applause at the end, from the king’s half brother and the 4 engineers, was deafening, overwhelming. I was mobbed, the band were beside themselves, a five year contract was mentioned, paper and a pen were called for. Finally the pandemonium subsided and the floor show came on. This consisted of the king’s half brother’s 13 year old Nepalese mistress jerking nervously about the pitch dark club (a red spot had been rigged) dressed in her bra and panties, knocking over glasses and shivering, the whole thing accompanied by a truly miraculous version of “The Stripper” delivered at full speed by the now totally out-of-control band.

Anyway, we emerged alive, after what seemed like a long night and got to bed in the Royal Guest House by 8:45pm.

In the next few days we saw the main administration building, where all Government business is conducted – the capital city of Thimbu is not a city, just two rows of wooden stores (the Pelki among them) and residences of officials scattered down the valley; all the action is in the Dzong, the big monastery-type building – it actually contains a monastery as well as everything else, a huge building, maybe 300 yards long, or square. God knows what goes on in it – almost anything could be accommodated, from archery matches to Army manouevres. After that we went to meet a famous holy man, a Tibetan called Kenchi Rimpoche. He was preaching, and had been preaching, 8 hours a day, for 3 months when we saw him. He had another month to go. I believe he was expounding the gospels of Milarepa, a Buddhist saint. He had a big tin-roofed building which had been specially erected for him, and hundreds of people came from as far away as Ceylon to hear him. He was over seventy, and although we spent no more than 10 minutes with him, talking through an interpreter, he gave off the strongest vibes of saintliness I’ve ever come across. I’ll never forget him, Kenchi Rimpoche, the Real Thing.

And that really winds up the bare bones of the story. There are so many other scenes in my mind, so many people and places, strange feelings and smells and sights. Most of all the feeling that you are utterly isolated, with people who know and care nothing about the outside world, though that is changing fast. No doctors within perhaps days of travelling, no medicines, no drugs, no telephones, no electricity, and yet unlike other wild places in the world, a relatively old and developed culture and society. I never saw anyone really angry (except at archery) the whole 7 weeks I was there, just conviviality and jokes and songs. So if you’ve reached this far, you’ve proved you have the stamina for the trip. I don’t think the Queen has a court poet; if you can stand the food, I’ll write a letter of introduction (longer than this one).

Love to Pat

        & Wayne

              & to you



Rory McEwen was “a painter, best known for his watercolors of leaves and flowers on vellum. He died (too young) in 1982. But his work remains: in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in museums and private collections all over the world…. [C]onversation was what he loved most: rich, allusive, and exploratory conversation. We all have what I would call Heart Groups, he wrote. And by that I mean a widening personal circle of love and affection, starting with our closest and dearest and dying out in the shallows of distant acquaintanceship.

“His pleasure in letters and letter-writing allowed him to maintain such ‘conversations’ with a surprisingly wide number of people. Goodness I do enjoy getting letters! he wrote to me once. I think the only reason I write letters is in the hopes of getting them back: and basically it makes no odds what the letter is like, short or long, coherent or incoherent….

Christian McEwen, “‘Music Hiding in the Air,’
A Memoir of Rory McEwen (1932-1982),” Archipelago, Vol. 4, No. 3

Ron Padget “was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1942. With Ted Berrigan and others, Padgett reinvented the New York School of Poetry in the mid-1960s. He has published over fourteen books, including GREAT BALLS OF FIRE and is regarded as the definitive translator of Blaise Cendrars and Apollinaire.”

Poetry Daily


Letter ©2003 Estate of Rory McEwen,
with the kind permission of Romana von Hofmannsthal McEwen.


next page


contents download subscribe archive