With temperatures in the Indian subcontinent soaring to 45 degrees Celsius these days (upwards of 110 Fahrenheit), it’s not a surprise that the Himalayas are a favorite getaway in this part of the world this time of the year. The long arc of the Himalayas — from Pakistan in the west to the Myanmar-China border in the east crowning the north of India all along, and spanning 2,400 km or 1,500 miles — is dotted with many options to escape to from the sub-continental heat. Among all these destinations, the kingdom of Bhutan holds a special place for those who love the mountains. It’s by far the most exotic of all Himalayan destinations. And given the fewer number of tourists going to Bhutan compared with other places such as Nepal or numerous hill stations in the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Sikkim, that can get chock-a-block during summer, Bhutan offers an unparalleled experience.
On the Indian side of the Himalayas, not many know Bhutan as well as Mita Kapur. The founder and chief executive of the Indian literary agency, Jaipur-based Siyahi, Kapur has been producing the much-loved “Mountain Echoes” festival in Bhutan for the past eight years. Held every August, it is a festival of literature, art and culture. The congregation of creative individuals in the magical setting in the lap of the Himalayas makes it a festival unlike many others.
Even though the ninth edition of “Mountain Echoes” is two months away, BLOUIN ARTINFO spoke to Kapur to make the best of the cool climes of Bhutan this sweltering season.
What is it about Bhutan that led to the creation of Mountain Echoes literature festival in the Himalayan Kingdom?
Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, our Royal Patron, is a prolific writer and it was during the tenure of former ambassador of India to Bhutan, Pavan Varma, that this festival was conceived of along with author Namita Gokhale. Siyahi was given the responsibility of producing the festival in 2010.
With eight editions of the Mountain Echoes literature festival behind you, Bhutan must be like second home to you. What do you like best about Bhutan?
Yes, I love Bhutan and its people. I have so many friends there. I start getting withdrawal pangs if a few months pass without my going there to work. I have learnt a lot and my life has been enriched by Bhutan as a country — its calm, its rootedness, and the pride that each Bhutanese has for the country’s culture and traditions, are somethings I admire and respect.
Mountain Echoes has in its own ways impacted Bhutan — there are book clubs in every school now. Book readings, launches, author interactions are frequent now. When the festival began in 2010, nothing of this sort used to happen in Bhutan. Publishing has gone up by more than 40 percent. The number of writers has grown many many times more than the first few well-known writers way back. Some of them have also got published in India and Europe. The Writers Association of Bhutan is doing some admirable work to give debut authors a publishing platform. It’s simply amazing.
What are your favourite places in Thimphu that you would recommend to visitors?
All of Thimphu! From the majestic Tashicho Dzong to Changhanka monastery to Dechen Phu, Dechen Phodrong, Tara monastery, Buddha Point, the Clock Tower, Vast Gallery, Terton Gallery, Mojo Park, and so many other nooks and corners like the Junction bookstore, DSB Books — I’m just naming a few. I love going for a run by the river. The weekend farmers market and craft bazaar are worth a visit. One must also visit the painting school — the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.
Could you suggest some restaurants in Thimphu to try out local cuisine and other international fare?
The Zone, Folk Heritage Museum, Zasa, Cloud Nine, Hotel Druk, Zombala. Madam Yuki’s cafe rustles up dreamy cakes! The local breweries make their own beer — don’t miss the stout, red rice lager, and pale ale — it’s something to die for. They have Zumzin — their own wine, which is lovely. K5, the Bhutanese whiskey, is a smooth drink as well.
Any local dish that you would recommend visitors must try out while in Thimphu?
I love Bhutanese food. Pork chilly with Ema Datshi and red rice, wild fern, beef ribs, Bhutanese buckwheat noodles, Ezzay, momos, Hogay, mushroom Datshi and a whole plethora of dishes.
What are the places in Bhutan outside of Thimphu that one must visit for a complete experience of the kingdom?
One must visit the Tango-Cheri monastery [about 14 kms north of Thimphu], Dochula pass [on the road from Thimphu to Punakha], Tiger’s nest monastery in Paro [about 50 kms from Thimphu], the Paro Dzong [a Buddhist monastery and fortress in Paro district], Punakha and Bumthang, and the Haa district.
Where would you advise visitors to go shopping?
Shop at OGOP - its the best! Besides, the main streets in Thimphu and Paro offer a great shopping experience. There is a whole handicraft market behind the Taj Tashi as well in Thimpu. The capital city also has small boutiques by local designers such as Chandrika (CDK) and Chimmi (House of Design) who are simply fantastic.
Any local artifact/ handicraft/ textile, that one mustn’t leave without buying in Bhutan?
Bhutan has a burst of colours and a riot of creativity to choose from — their Kira and Goh fabrics, silver and a whole load of other handicraft are available. Also worth a buy are their traditional mugs in which they serve Ara etc, and Budhist Thangkas.
What’s your favourite Bhutan memory from all the years that you have been going there for the Mountain Echoes festival (and even otherwise)?
I have too many memories — I could write a book. My family tells me to go to Bhutan to calm down when I start getting too crabby.
Any unusual aspect of Bhutanese climate that you would want visitors to be aware of?
Always have a jacket and an umbrella handy, as also sensible walking shoes.
Any hidden surprises about Bhutan that are not easy to find in travel guidebooks?
Its a land full of mysteries — walk around and find out!
Founder: Louise Blouin