I want to visit every country in the world, it is as simple as that. I cannot remember the exact moment that I decided I would aim for and achieve my own global conquest, in a geographical sense; I merely became aware one day that this is something I would do. The rapid and clear understanding that I would neither be the first nor the youngest to achieve this feat removed any potential time constraint and pressure, and turned what might have been a petty and pointless race into an enjoyable lifelong goal. The burst of adrenaline and childlike excitement that I feel when I set foot in a new country, and as the immigration officer returns my freshly stamped passport, is incomparable. Travel is my drug.

As I slowly but surely inch my way towards the magical United Nations member count of 193, so does the journey become more complicated. The days of effortless budget airline escapades to unexplored corners of Europe, or faraway continental cluster trips are long gone: this has turned into a sniper mission, picking off distant targets one by one. Volatile political situations in Africa and Asia can very quickly render swathes of either continent out of bounds to all but the most suicidal of travellers, whilst the sheer geographic isolation of many sovereign island states of the Pacific Ocean create logistical puzzles beyond even Ernó Rubik’s solving.

The current state of play…

And then there is Bhutan. Neither remote nor dangerous, this little-known mountain kingdom of 800,000 souls nestled picturesquely in the world’s highest mountain range, within reasonable reach of India, China and Nepal, simply does not want mass tourism and its perceived detrimental impact on a small nation’s infrastructure. To deter the hordes of drunken backpackers and dreadlocked hippies already swarming all over the rest of Southern Asia, Bhutan has therefore slapped a Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of $200 per person for every night spent in the country, along with a compulsory requirement of being accompanied by a guide for the entire duration. Throw in a $40 visa fee, and the cost of a single night’s stay in the country adds up to an eye-watering $560.

And so, one eye-watering $560 payment later and here I am – insert smiley and banknotes with wings emojis. It is 6am at the India-Bhutan land border, where I am patiently waiting for my guide in the company of three equally intrepid globetrotters from Germany and the UK on the same mission to keep our short visit to the absolute financial minimum. I may not be in a hurry to visit every nation in the world, but Luca is. At 20, he has two more years to become the youngest male to complete the set of 193 countries, and Bhutan will be his 140th; his English girlfriend Sophia is a multiple world record holding hula hooper; Philipp, a 22 year old flight attendant for Lufthansa with a private pilot license completes the group. Together we have a total of 36 hours to explore one of the planet’s most mysterious and least visited countries, and our excitement is palpable. New stamp incoming!

It’s 7am but everyone is happy when you are in a new country!

Cutting out exorbitant flights into and out of Bhutan unfortunately means a lengthy minivan journey from the Indian border to the capital Thimphu, but the gradual ascent into the forest foothills of the Himalayas is so glorious that no one complains. There is an unspoken awareness amongst our group of seasoned travellers that we are currently visiting one of the rarer countries on the planet, a sentiment that heightens our appreciation and perhaps lowers expectations. Our first stop is a giant golden Buddha statue perched high above the capital, a monument that would struggle to arouse anything stronger than mild curiosity out of me two months into this and after many other trips to South East Asia. But this is a Bhutanese Buddha, and that makes it truly magnificent. As are the momo dumplings we have for lunch in a typical tavern in the capital, Michelin star worthy, in fact. My first beer in the country, however, is horrendous. Not even the gods of travel can make lager made with rice taste half decent.

Inside that big Buddha, will be 130,000 little Buddhas

The current social and economic ties of Bhutan may be strongest with India in the south, but the country’s culture and history are irrevocably linked with a Tibet long absorbed within the big bad Chinese dragon’s borders to the north. Founded by a runaway Tibetan monk in the 17th century, it took until the early 20th century for the House of Wangchuck to unify Bhutan into a monarchy, and its 5th king to give power to the people by adopting a democratic constitution in 2008. Perhaps the nation’s most significant global contribution to date is the introduction of its Gross National Happiness (GNH) scale as an measure of a country’s collective well-being, an index which has since been used by a number of countries to asses societal progress.

Our own GNH is sky high, as Buddha and lunch are followed by an entertaining visit to the Bhutanese cultural centre. We are taught a grain mashing dance, and butcher it spectacularly. My archery skills prove to be equally disastrous, but I redeem myself at millet grinding – if nothing else I may have found an alternative career as a farmer in Bhutan. My knack for event planning and sniffing out nightlife are second to none, however, and a spectacular first day is rounded off listening to live nu-metal covers at a packed rock bar in Paro, the country’s second largest city. We sneak back into our homestay at 1:30am, smiling like naughty teenagers and seemingly unaware that the following day’s big event is a mere 5 hours away.

Four farm labourers, really labouring…

The country’s name may not conjure many immediate images to most of the planet’s population, but ask any experienced traveller what Bhutanese sight they would not want to miss and the answer will always and only be Paro Taktsang, commonly known as the Tiger’s Nest. Perched vertiginously on a cliffside of the Upper Paro Valley at an altitude of 3,120m, this monastery complex reached only by a two hour uphill trek is the poster boy for the Bhutan Tourism Board and the reason we are all here. As we struggle to locate the distant white speck high up on the mountain, from the car park a long way away, we wonder whether our late night will come back to bite us in the derrière. But it doesn’t, and we positively gambol up the vertical cliff like young lambs discovering new pastures.

Yes, that little white thing that looks like a monastery…

The world’s most wondrous sights seldom disappoint, and the Tiger’s Nest is no exception: it truly is magnificent. With the blood, sweat, and tears of the gods of weather, Mother Nature, and few dozen humble and rugged Buddhist monks combining to create as aesthetically majestic a panorama as my poor myopic peepers have witnessed for quite some time, I pause for one of those genuinely rare travel moments that make me acutely aware of why this is my reason to live. I stop and take it in. My phone stays in my pocket, I don’t talk to my new friends. I just look, and enjoy the moment.

Aesthetic perfection

What snaps me out of my blissful rêverie is an incredible cherry on top of the cake that makes the moment totally perfect. Sophia has taken her hoops out and performs a quite spectacular routine, with a quite spectacular backdrop (watch here). This is when you realise that whatever aspirations you might have, there are a million other people on this planet that can not only help you get there, but transform the experience beyond your wildest expectations. On our way up, and back down again, we kidnap a Canadian-Lebanese from another organised group, and enjoy a glass of wine together in the sunshine, basking in our newly conquered glory. We know we have reached the short trip’s summit, but are also aware that the remaining hours in this peaceful country as well as the drive back to the Indian border will be done in complete and utter satisfaction and happiness.

Lady Of The Rings

There is no right or wrong way to travel. I am old enough and ugly enough now to understand and appreciate this. If all you kind readers, friends, companions were to pay $10,000 each into my account, I promise that I would do you and the world justice by spending weeks and months in any given country, if I could (PayPal link sent on request). But I would feel no better or more worthy than I do right now, exiting Bhutan after a mere 36 hours since our entry stamp was gently pressed into our passport. It was just a day and a night, perhaps a little more, but it was in the right company, with superbly understanding guides, and with the perfect itinerary. Oh how much fun it is to travel…

Our farewell Bhutanese lunch with the team

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