A Walkabout in Bhutan
The woman's smile is blood red. Her teeth, gums, and lips are stained with juice from the betel nut she is chewing, and she spits quickly onto the ground when she thinks I'm not looking.
"Kuzo zangpo," she says, hitching her load of straw higher on her back.
"Kuzo zangpo la." I return her greeting and watch her bare-footed progress along the narrow path, beside the foaming blue torrent of the Paro Chhu river.
This path leads from a rough dirt road at Drukgyel Dzong, into the heart of the Bhutan Himalaya. It is dotted with tiny settlements and army posts, for Tibet is just a few hours walk away. Enormous mountains form a jagged skyline, vultures and eagles soar overhead, and in the lower reaches children and women paddle through water-soaked fields, harvesting rice by hand.
It has taken many months of planning, this trip to the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan; we have only been here a handful of days and already a time warp is taking hold.
At the dawn of the 21st century, we have flown into a country where the capital city has no traffic lights (a set was installed but the people said it was ugly and had it taken down), where television was introduced in June 1999, and where astrologers are consulted before doctors.
This is a country where women are bold and curious, where children ask for a word in English, not money, where almost everyone is a Buddhist and traditional dress is compulsory.
It is also one of the few places in the world where, in just three days' walking, you can stand at the foot of a 7,000-meter peak, in the heartland of the great Himalaya.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication