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Monsoon in Bhutan means slippery trails, high rivers, bridges washed away, biting gnats -- and leeches. But it also means blue poppies. The only time they flower is during the monsoon rains, from May to July. The blue poppy is the national flower of Bhutan, but that doesn't mean it's easy to find.

And this is what I have set my heart on doing: seeing the rare blue poppy in its remote, high-altitude mountain habitat. Inspiration comes from reading accounts of early 20th-century Western plant hunters who came to the foothills of the Himalayas in search of gems like the blue poppy as ornamental flowers for European gardens. Five of the 12 blue poppy species growing across the Himalaya are found in Bhutan.

One advantage of trekking in the monsoon season quickly becomes apparent: You have the entire trail to yourself. It's a muggy day in early June, and we are heading into Jigme Dorji National Park, the largest protected area in Bhutan. The plan is to complete a 20-day loop of the national park, starting in Paro, a tiny town in the west of the country, and ending east of Thimphu, the capital. "We" means two Canadian trekkers -- myself and Eric, an old friend I have talked into joining this expedition. Eric always dreamed about hiking in the Himalayas -- a dream that has been somewhat dampened on this trip by sporadic monsoon downpours. When it rains, it sometimes pours for hours. This is like being thrown into the deep end.

But Eric takes it all in stride and has adapted remarkably well. He is, however, having trouble coming to terms with our unwieldy entourage: a dozen horses and mules, two horse handlers, guide, cook and assistant. He thinks that 770 kilograms of supplies is a tad over the top. For minimal environmental impact, Bhutanese regulations stipulate that trekking outfits must carry everything they need. Jigme Dorji National Park is pristine and remote, with sparse settlements of subsistence farmers in the lowlands, and yak and livestock herders in the highlands.

Even when villages are encountered, trekkers pass the nights in their own tents at designated campsites. Most of the load is camping gear and food. The rice alone weighs 80 kilograms. And there are four kilos of chilies for our crew -- the Bhutanese are very fond of spicy dishes.

We toil upward, through scented pine and oak forests, with cypress, spruce, juniper and birch trees evident. More than 6,000 plant species have been identified in Bhutan, including an astonishing 360 orchid species. In fact, the entire country can be considered to be one great park. Bhutan's poppy species range from smaller varieties in high meadows to taller varieties that grow above the tree line in high-alpine scree. Other rare poppies sighted in Bhutan include the white poppy, the red poppy and the yellow poppy. While neighbouring Tibet and Nepal are under threat from large-scale deforestation, Bhutan has preserved its forest cover intact. Remarkably, more than 25 per cent of the country has been set aside for national parks and wildlife preserves. This is my second trekking trip to Bhutan. The initial trip merely whetted my appetite for the country's natural beauty, its wildlife -- and its flora. Reading accounts of early British plant hunters to the region inspired thoughts of this trek just to find the blue poppy. Arriving in the kingdom of Bhutan is rather like being dropped into the Scottish Highlands in medieval times: The country is administered by men in robes and argyle socks from a series of dzongs (fortresses), a system dating to the 17th century. You have to love a place that has banned plastic bags and banished cigarette smoking, yet allows cannabis plants to flourish in the wild (the leaves are fed to domestic animals, making for very contented livestock).

While Bhutan may appear medieval, however, it is light-years ahead of the "developed" nations of Asia in its environmental vision. Adopting tenets of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist creed, the Bhutanese have evolved the concept of sacred landscape: mountains, lakes and forests to be left totally untouched. The world's highest unclimbed peak, Gangkar Punsum, lies within Bhutan, with no plans to allow it to be trammelled by the boots of mountaineers.

Because of a late monsoon arrival, a terrific bonus: The rhododendrons are still out in full force. They present a glorious sight as they carpet entire mountainsides with varieties ranging from tiny to tree-sized, including the beautiful red-flowering ethometho. Close to 50 species of rhododendron have been identified in Bhutan. With the rhododendrons in flower, the country turns into a plant lover's paradise. The vastness and silence are broken by bird calls. In this national park, there are more than 30 mammal species -- including the rare snow leopard -- and more than 320 bird species (out of 700-plus avian species listed in Bhutan).

Tenzin, our guide, has the uncanny ability to spot birds without the aid of binoculars -- we zero in on rare species like the ibisbill. The gull-sized bird with a grey body and red bill is perfectly camouflaged in grey rocks of a river bed and it's only from its peculiar call that Tenzin is able to locate it. He tells me that he once escorted a birder who spent 10 years looking for the ibisbill, and finally arranged to come to Bhutan to catch up with it.

Settling into the rhythm of trekking, you soon develop into a formidable walking machine -- and you develop an enormous appetite to keep that machine going. Although the pack animals are carrying the load, and we have only camera gear in daypacks, the elevation proves gruelling enough. After several days of arduous trekking on slippery slopes, our small party reaches 3,500 metres, the merciful elevation where the bugs disappear. By the time we get to Chomolhari, most plant species have disappeared too. The trees are long gone. But small alpine flowers still flourish, as well as mosses and lichens.

Breakfast in Bhutan: The crew tuck into ema datsi (chilies and cheese). And for us, laid out on a folding table is an array of toast, marmalade, eggs, porridge, fruit juice and tea. This breakfast is a legacy of early British presence in Bhutan. The pack horses are liable to wander over and stick their heads in the porridge if you are not watchful, or if you get distracted by the stupendous views -- this morning, the snow-capped peak of Chomolhari, a brooding colossus of 7,314 metres.

It has been a long haul this far, but after a week we have finally reached the likely habitat of the blue poppy. Climbing up to a high-altitude lake at 4,100 metres, we sight blue sheep and ruddy shelducks. A mist descends over the lake, reducing visibility to a few metres. The mist turns moody, swirling around. I am about to turn back to camp when, out the corner of my eye, I spot a trace of blue. The mysterious blue poppy has finally surfaced. In such a bleak environment, the flower makes a fantastic sight -- a turquoise gem set in a grey landscape. It stands a metre tall, jutting out of alpine scree, with snow-capped peaks looming. You wonder how the plant could possibly survive such conditions, let alone produce a gorgeous deep-blue flower. But this is a hardy alpine poppy, able to withstand freezing temperatures -- it has been observed with its stem hairs encased in ice.

I am gazing at a flower that was once considered to be as mythical as the yeti. Although the blue poppy was identified as early as the 1850s, it was not until 1913 that British explorer Frederic Bailey plucked one in the Tsangpo region of eastern Tibet and pressed it between the pages of a notebook. The specimen was named Meconopsis baileyi after him: It aroused considerable interest in Britain. Bailey was a butterfly collector, not a botanist. A decade later, following precise directions given by Bailey, botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward collected seeds in 1924 and is credited with introducing the blue poppy to European gardens.

It was Bailey again who discovered a huge white poppy ( Meconopsis superba) while riding into Bhutan through the Ha district in 1922. But the blue poppy remained elusive -- its presence in Bhutan was not confirmed until 1933, when British botanist George Sherriff collected specimens in the mountains of Sakteng, to the far eastern border of Bhutan.

This variety of blue poppy is known as Meconopsis grandis, today the national flower of Bhutan. The seeds that George Sherriff sent back to England flowered in cultivation, and not only that -- they cross-fertilized with other species, producing new blue poppy hybrids. In the wilds of Bhutan, the different poppy species rarely "meet," so natural hybrids are rare.

Another day of trekking brings us over a high pass to the Lingshi valley, which is famed for its huge variety of mountain flowers and herbs. Botanists and flower lovers come from as far afield as England or Japan to see these floral wonders.

We run into some Bhutanese collectors, gathering herbs for the National Institute of Traditional Medicine in Thimphu. They tell me that several rhododendron and blue poppy species are used in traditional medicines. The best-known medicinal "plant" is cordyceps, a fungus that grows on the larva of a caterpillar and takes it over. This thin worm-like "plant," only found in monsoon season above 4,000 metres, is prized for stimulating the circulation and theimmune system -- a general energy booster that is also reputed in China to possess aphrodisiac and anti-aging properties. Bands of smugglers make frequent cross-border sorties from Tibet into Bhutan intent on poaching this weird fungus.

High on the hillsides above Lingshi, sharp-eyed guide Tenzin points in excitement to a clump of vegetation. He has found not one blue poppy, but an entire cluster of them. Most blue poppies bear four or five petals, but a larger flower here bears nine petals. It is a thrilling sight. And the ultimate reward for undertaking this monsoon quest. The rarity of the blue poppy lies in its fleeting beauty: This variety flowers only once, then seeds and dies. But there is one way to make the bloom last longer -- by capturing it on film. Photos can convey a little of Bhutan's extraordinary wealth of flora, but nothing can surpass seeing it yourself.

Michael Buckley is the author of Tibet: the Bradt Travel Guide (2006).

The poppy hunter

In 1924, botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward, alerted by explorer Frederic Bailey to the location of the poppies, managed to bring back the seeds of these turquoise beauties so they could be propagated in the West.

"This fine plant grows in clumps, half a dozen leafy stems rising from the perennial rootstock to a height of 4 feet," he wrote. "The flowers flutter out from amongst the sea-green leaves like blue-and-gold butterflies; each is borne singly on a pedicel, the plant carrying half a dozen nodding, incredibly blue 4-petalled flowers, with a wad of golden anthers in the centre. . . Never have I seen a blue poppy which held out such high hopes of being hardy, and of easy cultivation in Britain."

-- Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges: Retracing the Epic Journey of 1924-25 in South-East Tibet by F. Kingdon Ward (author), Ken Storm Jr (editor), Ian Baker (editor).

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

Bhutan's only airport is located in Paro. Druk Air ( http://www.drukair.com.bt), the national carrier, operates four aircraft on the Bangkok-Paro-Calcutta-Kathmandu-Delhi route.

VISITING BHUTAN

Unless you manage to wrangle an invitation from a resident, all travel must be arranged through a Bhutanese travel agent. North American tour operators partner with Bhutanese companies. Costs run from $230 to $320 a day per person and include guides, hotels, food and transportation.

Blue Poppy Tours & Treks: http://www.bluepoppybhutan.com. The author travelled as a guest of Blue Poppy an agency, based in Thimphu and London. A nine-day trek, Oct. 15 to Nov. 1, costs $6,775 a person, including return airfare from Bangkok to Paro and 13 days in Bhutan. You do need to be in top shape to tackle a trek of this length as altitude takes its toll on your health.

Everest Trekking Canada: 604-731-7650; http://www.everesttrekking.com. This Vancouver-based companyoffers a trek to Chomolhari basecamp in October, 2007 for$6,775a person from Thimphu.

Trek Holidays: http://www.trekholidays.com. The Canadian company offers a 21-day trek in Bhutan for $6,670 a person from Thimphu.

Great Expeditions: 1-800-663-3364 http://www.greatexpeditions.com. This B.C.-based companyoffers a tour to see the rare black-necked crane, whose annual arrival in Bhutan is celebrated in a festival at a monastery. Will take place in November, 2007; cost is $8,099 a person inclusive of round-trip airfares from Canada.

Bestway Tours & Safaris: 1-800-663-0844; http://www.bestway.com. The B.C.-based company has a seven-day package to Bhutan for $2,250 a person, land only.

Tourcan Vacations: 1-800-263-2995; www. tourcanvacations.com. The Toronto-based company offers nine-day tours of Bhutan for $3,319-$4,300 a person priced from New Delhi.