My guide's words hung in the mountain air, which was tinged with pine and – yes – a hint of magic. I contemplated their meaning as I took in the view: river churning through forested valley, prayer flags tall as yacht sails shuddering in the breeze; a lady in a red embroidered robe leading her cow off to pasture.
A view, as
it happened, scarce few outside eyes had ever seen.
In the 21st Century,
getting there first – or even third – is rare. But when the Bhutanese
government opened up the region of Merak Sakten in 2010, it also opened up the
chance for regular travellers to become pioneers.
Sakten, an unspoiled undulation of foothills and valleys around two villages of
those names, lies in the far east of this high-Himalaya nation, the opposite
side of Bhutan to its capital and only airport. It is remote in the extreme, a
land apart in terms of geography, fauna (the Sakten Wildlife Sanctuary protects
the yeti) and local culture.
here are semi-nomadic Drokpas – they speak a different dialect, have their own
deities, wear a singular style of dress. It was to preserve this uniqueness
that the government closed the area to tourists in 1995, though few foreign
travellers had entered the region before then.
Now, to try
to encourage more tourism to the country as a whole, Merak Sakten is open for
business. A multi-day trek to the villages, along river valleys and over a
4,300m pass, is the best way to get a taste.
Saintly blessing, yeti dwelling
The people of Merak
Sakten paid me little mind. There was no hassle in the villages’ alleys, no
artificial “culture performance’”for the nosy tourist. I wanted to buy a shamo
– the region’s iconic black, yak-hair berets boasting five spidery tentacles
designed to draw away the rain – but there was no “Shamo Shack” catering to my
souvenir needs. (Though a passing farmer happily parted with his for a few
I just saw
real life, really happening. And it was wonderful.
As my guide
and I strolled amid lush hillsides and the odd white farmhouse with
bright-painted eaves, Bhutan cast its spell. In this largely Buddhist nation,
every river, rock and rhododendron seemed to have its own spirit or goddess. One
day, while picnicking, we received a blessing from a bona fide living saint, a
holy red-robed 30-something who was just passing by.
This is the
sort of thing that happens in East Bhutan: there is magic, or at least the
potential for it, round every mountain bend. I did not see a yeti – a plus
perhaps, as they are allegedly huge, garlic-whiffing beasts, not fond of humans
– but I did meet people who swore they had. Out here, the yeti is very much
fact not fiction.
To be in a
land of natural splendour, and to have to share it only with a handful of
locals (and those yeti) is magical indeed.
Getting to Merak Sakten
Until an airport is
built in the east of the country, the quickest way to access Merak Sakten is to
cross the land border with India at Samdrup Jongkhar. Samdrup is a 2.5-hour
drive from Guwahati Airport, in Assam. From Samdrup it is a 6.5-hour drive
along hairpin roads to Trashigang, Eastern Bhutan's hub town.
Trashigang it is a 2.5-hour drive to Chaling, the start-point for the loop trek
to Phongme. This is the only hike in the area for which permits are currently
granted, though various day-hikes are available off the route. It can be done
in four days, though this requires a high level of fitness; five or six days
would allow a more leisurely pace.
For more on
getting to Bhutan in general – including information about visas and fees –
The article 'Bhutan’s unknown east' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.