GAUHATI, INDIA - Greeted by a Bhutanese girl and boy with bouquets of flowers, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge arrived on a windy Thursday morning in Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan for a daylong visit at the invitation of its king and queen.
Prince William and his wife, the former Kate Middleton, stepped from their jet onto the airport tarmac in the picturesque hilltop resort town of Paro and a red-carpet welcome led by Princess Ashi Chimi Yangzom Wangchuck, sister to the Bhutanese king. A vehicle stood waiting to drive them about 40 minutes to their hotel in the capital of Thimphu.
The British royals are expected to spend the day watching an archery match and meeting Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema, who are wildly popular in the nation of 800,000. In the evening, they will meet the Bhutanese royal couple's baby, born in February, and dine with Bhutan's king and queen.
“Two of the world's young royal couples are meeting. It's a great message of friendship to the international community,” said Tenzin Lekphell, who heads a management institute in Thimphu.
On Friday, the British royal couple will hike to a Buddhist monastery called Tiger's Nest, perched at an altitude of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet), though there will be ponies on standby to help carry them should they tire on the trek. William's father, Prince Charles, had planned to make the same hike in 1998 but was injured in a polo match so instead stopped before the ascent and painted a scenic picture in watercolors.
The visit “is a symbol of the centuries-old relationship between Bhutan and the UK,” said Michael Rutland, who has lived in Bhutan since the 1970s and serves as honorary UK consul in the country.
Agents of the British East India Company first arrived in the region in 18th century, at a time of tension and internal struggle between rival fiefdoms spread across the remote, mountainous region. The British engaged in decades of low-level trading with local rulers amid squabbles over borders and domain.
In 1910, the two sides signed a treaty guaranteeing the British would not interfere in Bhutan provided the tiny kingdom on the northern border of what was then the British Empire in India accepted advice on external relations.
The two young couples have much in common. Both were married in 2011, and both Kate and Jetson Pema did not come from royal families. The Bhutanese queen's father is a pilot, though her mother has royal lineage.
“There is a lot of excitement among the Bhutanese about the visit of the British royals,” said Kunzang Wangdi, a member Bhutan's Royal Advisory Council. “Flags, buntings and banners have been put up all over the capital Thimphu to welcome them.”
The British royals are on a weeklong tour of India and Bhutan. They have already visited Mumbai, New Delhi and the wildlife reserve of Kaziranga National Park in the northeast Indian state of Assam, where they hoped to raise awareness of the plight of endangered rhinos and other animals threatened by poaching and habitat loss.
Still, during their last night in Kaziranga, poachers killed another rhinoceros and removed its horn for sale on the black market, according to forest official Subhashis Das said. Park rangers found the rhino's carcass along with 88 shell casings from an AK-47 on Thursday morning.
It was the seventh rhino killed by poachers this year, including one on Monday before the Duke and Duchess had arrived. Last year, 20 rhinos were killed for their horns, which fetch high prices on a black market serving customers in China, Vietnam and other countries where people mistakenly believe eating the horns can increase a man's potency. It does not.
On Friday, the royal couple return to India to visit to the Taj Mahal, retracing the steps of a 1992 visit to the monument of love by William's mother, the late Princess Diana.
The couple are traveling without their two children - 2 1/2-year-old Prince George and 11-month-old Princess Charlotte. They had taken George to Australia with them in 2014 on their last royal tour.