It’s Monday morning in London. The country is torn apart by toxic debate and grieving. On the first official day of summer, the rain is hammering down so hard, it sounds like climate change. But there is a ray of audible joy – Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy is on the radio, discussing the edges of our knowledge and whether there are things which, by their nature, are unknowable. The sound of his voice reminds me of happy times in Bhutan at the Mountain Echoes literary festival last summer in Thimphu.
Marcus and I were guests of the festival, our trips supported by the British Council of India. It was an enormous privilege to be invited but a little daunting. I met Marcus and his family at Delhi airport and felt relieved to encounter friends on the journey. Marcus and I had appeared together at a literary festival in Bangladesh the year before – although at that point, we had never actually met in London, where we both live.
Neither of us had been to Bhutan before – it seemed like a mythical country of mists, high mountains and sequestered monks. During my stay at the festival, Bhutan would prove to be all those things – but so much more as well.
I have travelled all over the world, giving talks about my work in using story telling to explain science to young children. But I have been nowhere as remarkable or truly different as Bhutan. This is a trip which will remain in my heart forever.
Even my English back garden is now planted in homage to the flora and fauna I saw on a trek to a monastery in the Himalayas. Growing wild across the mountains, I saw all the mainstays of English gardening, flourishing in the wild but in bigger, brighter, more vivid forms. My back garden attempt to cultivate a tiny bit of that beauty reminds me of how lucky I was to have my Bhutanese adventure.
I confess, I didn’t love absolutely everything. Yak butter tea is a taste I haven’t acquired. And I didn’t quite adjust in the short time I was there to the sight of large phalluses in statue form planted everywhere, a symbol of protectiveness in Bhutan. Perhaps with time, I would acclimate to both those phenomena. On the other hand, perhaps not.
Everything in Bhutan is an art form, even landing the plane at Paro Airport. Landing at altitude, within one of the world’s most formidable mountain ranges on a short runway is clearly not for novice pilots. The number of people who hold a licence to land in Bhutan is reassuringly limited to 26 pilots only, meaning you are inevitably in the hands of experts as you touch down. It was a better landing than many I have experienced at Gatwick and not a reason not to visit Bhutan. Neither is the much vaunted ‘tourist tax’. Yes, it exists, but it also covers your accommodation, transport, food, entrance charges and a guide for your time in Bhutan. That’s not tax as we know it.
Disembarked from Royal Air, we were warmly greeted at the carved wooden airport by the festival’s organisers and taken to our respective hotels. I shared a taxi with a very affable silver haired gentleman who, I only found out much later, was in fact the King of Ladakh, part of the longest ruling family on Earth. He was unceremoniously charming and didn’t even blanch when I accidentally made off with his chauffeur and car for the rest of the festival, leaving him to take the bus.
The festival itself was a complete joy for me. The best part of my job as a children’s author is meeting and talking to young audiences worldwide. The children of Bhutan were so clever, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Lined up in their school uniforms, they were an endearing sight. I met and spoke to kids both at the festival and at a session arranged by the British Honorary Counsel, Michael Rutland where Marcus and I each taught a science lesson to a local primary school. Both Marcus and I were rigorously taken to task over our respective subjects and faced a battery of inquisitive and well informed questions.
But I also thoroughly enjoyed the huge diversity of author presentations at the festival. I learnt about the eco movement in India and the passionate fight to save sights of special interest from commercial development. I heard Patrick French discuss what it means to be a biographer and how he approaches his work. I learnt about symmetry and how we respond to it in nature – and what it means in maths – from Marcus. I remember my dear friend, the children’s author Paro Anand, doing eight consecutive hours of story telling with local children, who sat, spellbound on the grass as she wove her magical tales.
And we met the Queen Mother of Bhutan. This incredible, wise and dignified member of the royal family is very much the emblem of the festival. Her hospitality – having all the participants and speakers at the festival for a drinks party at her royal palace – was the seal on an unusual and beautiful festival experience.
One last point – Bhutan is famous for its insistence on the importance of happiness and the need to include this as a measurement of GDP. I understand there is significant debate about what this means and whether this is more of an attractive concept than an actual reality. So I will say this – literary festivals tend to full of writers. Writers, in general, live their lives in an enhanced condition of nervy status anxiety about everything from sales to the subject of their next book. As a group, we are not always famous for being calm, outgoing or socially adept. But at Mountain Echoes, whether we had all subliminally imbibed the Buddhist ethos of the country as a whole or whether other factors were at work, the atmosphere was blissful – joyful, collaborative, humorous and supportive. This was a gem of a festival in a stunning verdant setting. Go if you can.