'We are only the third group to visit in at least 15 years.'
My guideʼs 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.
Merak 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.
The people 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
But is being 'new' reason enough to visit? It certainly has its advantages.
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 ngultrum.)
No, I just saw real life, really happening. And thought it 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: thereʼs magic, or at least the potential for it, round every mountain bend. I didnʼt see a yeti – a plus perhaps, as they're 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 Bhutanʼs hub town.
From 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/six days would allow a more leisurely pace.
For more on getting to Bhutan in general – including information about visas and fees – visit www.tourism.gov.bt.