by Stas Sedov|http://rccam.livejournal.com/] and
Sergey Shandin|http://www.airpano.com/fb.com/sergey.shandin]
members of the [AirPano Team|Geography/About/Consortium/AirPano,_Team] that is a member of the [global-geography Consortium|Geography/About/Consortium]. \\

22 June 2016

with kind permission of [AirPano|http://www.AirPano.com]

Many legends and rumors are told about Bhutan, or Druk-yul, the "Thunder
Dragon Kingdom", as locals call their own country. And the best way to
determine the truth and the fiction about this place — is only to visit
this country personally.

Flights to Bhutan are operating from Thailand, India, Singapore and
Nepal. Paro Airport is considered one of the world's most challenging
airports for taking off and landing: it is surrounded by high mountains
and the runway is rather short.

[{Image src='01_Bhutan.jpg' caption='Bhutan' alt='' width='900' popup='false' height='518'}]

Until 1974 foreigners were not allowed to enter the country and the only
way to visit Bhutan was a personal invitation from the King or Queen.
Now it is open for tourists but the flow is restricted and regulated
economically: all tourists must travel on a pre-planned and prepaid tour
arranged by an officially approved tour operator. The cost includes
accommodation, meals and guide services. It also includes a fee (around
$65 per day) — the King's tax, the money from which goes to the social
needs of Bhutan: healthcare, infrastructure development, etc.

Our main purpose for coming to Bhutan was making aerial panoramas of the
country's landmarks, so we began our preparations long in advance. Until
recently the use of drones in the country was forbidden, so we were
surprised and very glad to receive all the necessary permissions for
aerial photography.

The airplane abruptly turned above little homes and trees that I could
see in the window as we were ready for landing. Here we are in Paro,
such a legendary country of Bhutan! The following day is already
scheduled for a drone flight over Paro Dzong (type of fortified
monasteries or palaces in Himalaya region).

[{Image src='02_Paro, Rinpung Dzong.jpg' caption='Paro, Rinpung Dzong' alt='' width='900' popup='false' height='513'}]

Soon we were given additional instructions from aviation security
services: not to approach the dzong too close, not to fly above the
roof, not to launch the drone while airplanes or helicopters are in the
air — we are only a mile away from the airport. The sun is shining, the
wind sweeps the clouds over the mountains of Himalaya, the walls of the
mighty dzong are raising above our heads. What an astonishing scene!

In five minutes local police officers approached us to ask what we were
doing. We showed them all the permissions and papers we had, the
aviation security inspector who was accompanying us confirmed that
everything was ok. However, in a while a new group of policemen and
aviation safety representatives came up and we understood that an easy
solution was not expected to be found. With all our equipment we went to
the aviation safety office to found out that despite all the permissions
we have received previously there was a regulation forbidding drone
flights in Paro.

Eventually, all our permissions were recalled and we needed to validate
them again. Until then all photographing is forbidden.

Fortunately, our friends from White Umbrella Tours, who organized our
trip, managed to make an impossible thing: they obtained all the
necessary approvals only in a couple of days! But we got excited too
early: in addition to all the papers we also received the list of places
where drone-flights are prohibited — it included all the main
monasteries, dzongs and big settlements. In other words, we were left to
take pictures of nature that looks quite similar to what we can see in
the Northern Caucasus.

However, we could photograph from the ground. But as for the video — not
closer than 200 meters from any dzong. Checkmate! So, we had to
reorganize our shooting plan by removing all the prohibited objects and
dzongs from it.

While our guides were busy with arranging the documents, we hiked to
probably the most known monastery of Bhutan — Taktsang Lhakhang, also
known as the Tiger's Nest. According to the legend, Guru Rinpoche flew
to this place on the back of a tigress, so that's how the name appeared.
The monastery is "attached" to the cliffside at the altitude of 3120
meters; and you can get here only on foot following a curvy mountain
lane. Without a proper acclimatization it is a difficult thing to do,
but our guide Karma encourages us.

[{Image src='03_Tiger_s Nest (Taktsang Palphug Monastery).jpg' caption='Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang Palphug Monastery)' alt='' width='900' popup='false' height='601'}]

An hour and a half later we finally managed to mount the slope and a
wonderful view of the monastery appeared before us. At the entrance we
were carefully checked by the security: it is prohibited to take inside
not only cameras, but cell phones as well. Having observed the temples
we went down to the cave, where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated
and drank holy water running out of the cliff.

We left Paro and headed for Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. There are a
lot of cars in the city, but not a single stoplight: the traffic is
regulated by policemen. The capital presently houses the King's
residence: Thimphu Dzong is a rather majestic palace and in the evening
its towers are brightly illuminated. But still, we couldn't capture it
from the air.

[{Image src='04_Thimphu, Tashichho Dzong.jpg' caption='Thimphu, Tashichho Dzong' alt='' width='900' popup='false' height='601'}]

The following day we went to Simtokha Dzong located on the outskirts of
Paro. It is the oldest dzong of its kind in the country, built by
Zhabdrung, who unified Bhutan. We were quite lucky to have met one
military officer. I'm not good in defining different ranks of Bhutan
army, but it felt like he was a high-ranking officer. We quickly fell
into friendly talk and then he suggested showing us something that is
usually hidden from others. He called for a monk, who opened the room
where Zhabdrung's father lived and died.

We also managed to have a look at the sacred queen's crown, that is kept
in the study room of monks. The Simtokha Dzong has survived the siege
during the war with the Tibetans and was seized. When the invaders
gathered in the main temple, the roof collapsed and they were killed.
People say that spirit guards protected the place.

Finally, all the permissions are obtained and we start our journey into
the depths of the country. The entire road is under repair, the paving
surface is removed and our car is slowly riding along dusty serpentine,
every now and then giving the way to herds of cattle and oncoming
vehicles. We are heading for the Dochula pass located at the altitude of
3,116 meters above sea level. That's where we are going to spend the

Comparing to hot places like Paro and Thimphu, the dawn on the Dochula
pass is rather cool and fresh. The sun flickers through the morning
mist, illuminating the mountains and 108 memorial chorten-stupas. Some
scent sticks are burning in the ritual furnace. Stas is launching the
drone and we are ready to photograph. In the morning light stupas on the
top of the hill look absolutely magnificent.

[{Image src='05_Druk Wangyal Chortens.jpg' caption='Druk Wangyal Chortens' alt='' width='900' popup='false' height='513'}]

Our next destination is Punakha — a rather majestic dzong on the bank of
the river, surrounded by blooming trees. It is also a winter residence
of Je Khenpo, the religious leader of the country. The royal relics are
kept here. Unfortunately, this dzong is in our "black list", so we can
take some photo only in the courtyard and record video from the opposite
bank of the river.

[{Image src='06_Punakha Dzong.jpg' caption='Punakha Dzong' alt='' width='900' popup='false' height='600'}]

Almost at night we arrived at Gangteng, which is famous for having a
rare bird's reserve. But we were more interested in the Gangteng
monastery, where we were planning to go in the early morning. There we
were introduced to the lama and after some negotiations we got
permission to launch our drone.

As soon as we had finished photographing, we went to the monastery and
its main temple. After that we were invited to have a look at something
unusual. We followed a monk leading us up the steep narrow stairs to the
second floor. Our eyes soon got used to the darkness, we entered a small

[{Image src='07_Bhutan.jpg' caption='Bhutan' alt='' width='900' popup='false' height='623'}]

Along the wall there was an altar. Dark figures of warlords with cruel
faces and iron hats on their heads stood on each side. The fire in the
lamp flickered and it felt like the figures were moving. To the left of
the altar there were different kinds of weapons: beginning with ancient
swords and ending with modern guns with bayonets. Some strange monsters
watched from the right side. I stepped closer to have a look. Indeed,
these were dried heads of different animals, tusks and fangs. Here was
the head of a leopard, its skin got shrunken so much that its
threatening teeth had become more visible. I could see the head of a
buffalo, next to the head of a boar, and a beak of a hornbill bird. A
huge fish was hanging from the wall: it resembled a catfish, but with
big sharp teeth. The monk explained that all of them are defeated
demons, that had become trophies.

[{Image src='08_Bhutan.jpg' caption='Bhutan' alt='' width='900' popup='false' height='600'}]

Suddenly I glanced at something strange and I shivered... Came closer
for a better look. No, I was not mistaken, it was a human's hand. On the
wall left to the "trophies" there was a rather strange creature. First I
thought that it was a monkey, but the skull covered with dried skin
looked absolutely like a human, though a small one. Long body, narrow
hands and feet. Blackened skin tightened on the bones, but there was no
decay; traits and palms were well preserved. A small human, but not a
child — proportions are different. Together with all the bestiary I saw
here, it gave a rather sinister feeling. This was a tseluchup, as we
were told. A demon as well.

Once I read about tribes of dwarfs in Himalaya — explorers of the 19th
century mentioned them. Probably, this creature was one of them, and he
was rather unlucky to have met a lama who took him for a demon... So
many secrets are kept behind the walls of these ancient monasteries.

Having left Gangteng, we headed for the Bumthang District. It is a very
beautiful region, sometimes called "Bhutan Switzerland". Here we visited
the monastery of Thangbi Lhakhang. The lama welcomed us very heartily
and allowed us to take photos of the puja prayer ritual. Basically,
photographing inside temples is forbidden, but this time an exception
was made for us.

In total we spent two days in the monastery. We attended religious
ceremonies, drank tea, and in the evening monks invited us to play some
games with them. One of them was to pick up a stone that weighed around
a hundred kilograms and carry it. Complete a lap with this burden, and
all your sins will be atoned. I could only carry it for a quarter of the

[{Image src='09_Thimphu, Tashichho Dzong.jpg' caption='Thimphu, Tashichho Dzong' alt='' width='900' popup='false' height='512'}]

Bhutan is a very fascinating and unique country, we can talk about it
endlessly. One of the most unusual peculiarities that differs it from
other countries is the pursuit of happiness supported by legislation. In
1972 Bhutan's King Jigme introduced the concept of the Gross National
Happiness. This measure is more important here than the Gross National
Product, lying in the basis of many other countries.

Now the King of Bhutan is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was
crowned in 2006 at the age of 26 years and thus he became the youngest
reigning royal in the world. The philosophy of appreciation of happiness
in the first place — not wealth — is still supported by him.

The usual life of the Bhutanese people is still influenced by historical
values — both cultural and religious. The country is proud of its
forests, flora and fauna, so environmental issues are ones of the most
important in the happiness-centered governmental program. In addition to
that, the way to the national happiness also includes an educational
reform, obligatory English language teaching, road construction with no
harm to the nature, care of the elderly, governmental support of the
monasteries, total prohibition of smoking and use of the chemical
fertilizers, pollution control and sustaining cleanliness, growing
flowers in the streets and etc.

We would like to thank White Umbrella Tours and personally Natalia and
Tashi Vangdi for organizing our tour, our guide Karma Yunten, driver
Karma and all those people who helped and supported us during our trip.

\\ \\
[18 Panoramas of Bhutan 1|Geography/Asia/Bhutan/Pictures/Panoramas_of_Bhutan_1]
[10 Panoramas of Bhutan 2|Geography/Asia/Bhutan/Pictures/Panoramas_of_Bhutan_2]

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