A Hike in Bhutan, King­dom of the Hills A stay at the Uma by Como, Paro, in­cludes a moun­tain trek, a visit to the Tiger’s Nest and some rookie mis­takes

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By BILL POW­ERS

THIN AIR, an up­set stom­ach, aching feet—th­ese are a few of my least fa­vorite things. My wife had pitched my two daugh­ters and me on an “af­ter­noon hike” in the Hi­malayas. By her telling, it was some­thing any Girl Scout worth her weight in Thin Mints could han­dle.

Lit­tle did we know that we’d be trekking to an al­ti­tude of 13,000 feet and camp­ing out in a snow­storm.

My wife, de­signer Cyn­thia Row­ley, likes to book a fam­ily ad­ven­ture for ev­ery spring break. We feel it’s im­por­tant to open the minds of our daugh­ters—Kit, 15, and Gigi, 9—to the won­ders of the world be­fore we lose the girls en­tirely to the won­ders of tech­nol­ogy. Over the years we’ve trav­eled to 35 coun­tries, in­clud­ing France, Brazil, Ja­pan, Peru and In­dia. Last year we went on­sa­fari in Kenya and Tan­za­nia. This year we opted for 10 days in the King­dom of Bhutan. We were try­ing to top our African ad­ven­ture, but Cyn­thia also wanted our kids to wit­ness a cul­ture that hasn’t changed sub­stan­tially in 1,000 years.

We were based at the Uma by Como, Paro, a 29-room lux­ury re­sort with a cool, con­tem­po­rary aes­thetic. It is lo­cated on a 38-acre site atop a gen­tly slop­ing, tree-clad hill, over­look­ing the rich Paro Val­ley—one of the main cul­tural cen­ters of Bhutan, near its western bor­der.

We spent most of our time there vis­it­ing lo­cal dzongs—the re­gion’s dis­tinc­tive fortress-cum-monas­ter­ies—and prac­tic­ing archery, lo­cally called kit, on the re­sort’s groomed lawn. En­cour­ag­ing the whole fam­ily to par­tic­i­pate some­how felt very “Hunger Games,” but hey—it’s Bhutan’s na­tional sport, its only Olympic event and a common pas­time. But after two days of ar­chi­tec­tural tour­ing and ar­row aim­ing, we de­cided to mix things up with an overnight camp­ing trip.

The ho­tel drove us up a nearby moun­tain via a wind­ing dirt road that de­liv­ered in­cred­i­ble Hi­malayan vis­tas. We con­nected with our base team—a cou­ple of guides and a cook, who were wait­ing with pack don­keys, tents and other sup­plies. The plan was to hike for two hours, break for lunch, then con­tinue for another 2½ hours to the peak.

It all started very jovially, as we tra­versed a well-worn path through the trees and un­der­brush. Our walk, I thought to my­self, felt like a mix be­tween the fi­nale of “The Sound of Mu­sic” where the fam­ily es­capes across green moun­tains and the scenic, mirth­ful start of “The Blair Witch Project.” Un­for­tu­nately, the rest of the lat­ter movie soon be­came rel­e­vant, too—I re­al­ized fairly quickly that I might be in over my head.

One of our guides had of­fered me a walk­ing stick be­fore we set out, and ini­tially it felt rather dec­o­ra­tive. Twenty min­utes into the trek, I was us­ing the stick as a crutch, and deeply re­gret­ting my decision to wear Con­verse sneak­ers to hike in poorly-packed snow. I’d taken a Di­amox, which pre­vents al­ti­tude sick­ness, “just in case” but hadn’t ac­tu­ally ex­pected the trip to be tax­ing— mostly be­cause my grasp of the metric sys­tem is fuzzy. I later dis­cov­ered that 4,000 me­ters, which hadn’t struck me as an es­pe­cially chal­leng­ing al­ti­tude, was 13,000 feet. When the guides told us af­ter­ward that they’d never had a 9-year-old at the top be­fore, I un­der­stood the trep­i­da­tion I’d spot­ted in their eyes ear­lier; they were no doubt ques­tion­ing whether Gigi had the goods to go the dis­tance.

As we as­cended above the tree line to­ward the peak, I had to stop chat­ting so I could con­serve my en­ergy for walk­ing. I wore a light­weight jacket, as did the kids, and I be­gan to won­der if they were dressed ad­e­quately for the con­di­tions.

About an hour into the climb, we be­gan to see med­i­ta­tion caves dot­ting the hill­side. Our guide ex­plained that, in Bhutan, monks are spon­sored, much the way pro­fes­sional ath­letes are in the West. What the monks do may be even tougher than mak­ing it in the ma­jor leagues, though—they med­i­tate for ex­tended pe­ri­ods, some­times re­main­ing in caves for five to 10 years. (The spon­sors pay to have ba­sic sup­plies de­liv­ered once a month.) It was hard for my chil­dren to wrap their heads around that level of sacrifice and com­mit­ment. It was hard for me, too.

The staff on th­ese kinds of trips can be in­tim­i­dat­ing. The man who fol­lowed us up the trail ef­fort­lessly car­ried a 50-pound satchel of food and sup­plies, in­clud­ing a fire starter and a car­ton of eggs for our break­fast the next morn­ing. He hadn’t bro­ken a sweat by the time we stopped for our lunch of salad and yak burg­ers. At that point we had started to as­cend into the clouds, and yet caught a cool glimpse of a com­mer­cial air­liner land­ing at Paro Air­port.

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