So what exactly am I doing in Bhutan? Well, it’s one of the most remote countries in the world, considered the ultimate Shangri-La, so it’s the perfect place to see whether a Yeti can stand up to the toughest of elements. There’s also a far more tenuous reason: Bhutanese people believe in the existence of the car’s namesake, the yeti. My destination is a wildlife sanctuary where yetis – or megoe, as they’re called in Bhutan – supposedly reside.
To get there, we – a convoy of Bhutanese guides and back-up – start at the border town with India, Samdrup Jongkhar, on the southern edge of the landlocked country. As we climb away from the quiet hubbub of the town, we quickly come to the mountain roads, full of the unexpected – wandering cows and smiling, waving people – as well as Buddhist shrines. I soon realise this isn’t a place for car spotting. There’s only a handful of vehicles. The most prevalent are big Tata trucks (see ‘The vehicles of Bhutan’, overleaf) adorned with multi-coloured religious symbolism and chugging out big clouds of black smoke.
In contrast, Bhutan’s prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, has something more sustainable planned for the nation’s vehicles: he wants everyone to go electric. It’s part of a broader environmental policy that says at least 60% of the land area must be forest – a figure they’ve already surpassed by 10% – and it’s the only nation in the world that is carbon negative. In 2014 Tobgay did a deal with Nissan to supply a bunch of electric Leafs. So committed is Bhutan that the king owns one (and a Toyota Land Cruiser, apparently) and the queen drives a Toyota Prius. Former environment minister Dasho Benji, who also owns a Leaf, told me uptake would come “slowly, slowly” and acknowledged that technology needed to improve for the cars to really take off. EVs are viable in the capital, Thimphu, but in the wilds of mountainous eastern Bhutan where we’re driving, an EV wouldn’t last five minutes.
Although Bhutan has similar issues on EV uptake to us in the UK, it’s coming from a very different standpoint. With a population of 750,000, there are no more than 50,000 vehicles on the road. An even more staggering figure came from a former tutor to the king, Englishman Michael Rutland, who said that when he arrived in 1971, there were only 47 vehicles in the entire country.
Nevertheless, it isn’t long before we hit the aforementioned stand-off on the so-called ‘death road’, as my passengers inform me that we’re inches from the edge of the cliff. Our saving grace is a friendly local in front of us, who has clearly marked us out as foreigners. He directs the oncoming trucks to the edge of the road, allowing us to squeeze through. Hallelujah. We plough on, never at more than 20mph; there’s too much dust, too many wheel-crunching potholes and that ever-present sheer drop just inches to our left.