Trekking in Bhutan is tough on the bod but easy on the spirit – once you learn to just let go


Trekking in Bhutan is tough on the bod but easy on the spirit — once you learn to just let go

It was the third time that day a hiker in our group had asked, “How much far­ther are we hik­ing? How long will it take us?” Our guide, Chun­jur, replied with his char­ac­ter­is­tic sly smile and mea­sured words: “Not too much far­ther. We’ll be there … soon.”

It was a vari­a­tion of the same round­about an­swer he gave ev­ery time some­one asked this ques­tion.

“So, maybe one hour, two hours more?” an­other brave mem­ber asked, laugh­ing but half se­ri­ous. Af­ter all, we’d been climb­ing and de­scend­ing over rocky ter­rain for four hours al­ready, most of it in the rain. It was the fourth day of a six-day trek in the Hi­malaya Moun­tains of Bhutan, and ev­ery­one was keenly aware that a hot shower and dry shoes were just two days away.

“We Bhutanese aren’t very con­cerned with how long a hike will take,” Chun­jur replied. “We just fo­cus on the climb in front of us, then the next pass, then the next de­scent af­ter that. We just put one foot in front of the other un­til we ar­rive to camp at the end of the day.”

We re­ceived this as the gen­tle re­minder it was meant to be: let go of your North Amer­i­can ob­ses­sion with time, Fit­bit stats and goal ac­com­plish­ments. Just let your­self be in this mo­ment.

In­deed, liv­ing in the mo­ment was why we were there in the first place. My hus­band, Trent Bau­man, had cho­sen to cel­e­brate his 50th birth­day in the only coun­try on Earth that pro­motes Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness.

Where bet­ter to mark a mo­men­tous life oc­ca­sion than in a deeply Bud­dhist place that em­pha­sizes non-eco­nomic as­pects of well-be­ing such as good health, per­sonal time use, com­mu­nity vi­tal­ity and liv­ing stan­dards?

In the months lead­ing up to his 50th birth­day, Trent had scoured travel web­sites for hours on end look­ing for just the right kind of travel ex­pe­ri­ence. His ini­tial long list was whit­tled down to a pres­ti­gious “ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time” short list with one com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor: each des­ti­na­tion in­volved climb­ing a moun­tain.

Bhutan has plenty of moun­tains to sat­isfy the in­trepid hiker. Lo­cated within the Hi­malaya Moun­tains, the tiny King­dom of Bhutan is bor­dered by Ti­bet to the north and In­dia to the south. Once known as a her­mit king­dom and pro­tec­tively closed to much of the out­side world, this small coun­try of 700,000 in­hab­i­tants has slowly opened its doors to in­ter­na­tional trav­ellers over the past decades.

Bhutan’s tourism pol­icy re­stricts en­try to 150,000 visi­tors a year, and in­ter­na­tional visi­tors pay a daily pack­age fee of US$200

to $250 for all ac­com­mo­da­tions, meals, in-coun­try trans­porta­tion and a guide. A vis­i­tor can­not travel in­de­pen­dently in the coun­try and a visa is ob­tained once you have booked a trip with an ac­cred­ited Bhutanese travel com­pany.

Bhutan’s travel pol­icy has not been de­vel­oped out of fear. It is de­signed to pre­serve the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment and cul­tural life­style while main­tain­ing the bal­ance of so­cio-eco­nomic re­al­i­ties for its cit­i­zens. Bhutan rec­og­nizes that it still lacks some tourism in­fra­struc­ture if tourism num­bers were to in­crease rapidly – enough ho­tel rooms, re­li­able roads and com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works, for ex­am­ple. Al­most one-third of the set daily rate charged to visi­tors is fun­nelled into de­vel­op­ment projects that build ad­di­tional tourism in­fra­struc­ture and sup­port health and ed­u­ca­tion within the coun­try. The rest of the fee cov­ers the ac­tual travel costs.

Bhutan’s com­mit­ment to main­tain­ing its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment is ev­i­dent as soon as you step onto one of its many trekking trails. Un­der cur­rent en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy, which has a long-term view of sus­tain­abil­ity, 65 per cent of the coun­try will re­main forested, pro­vid­ing vast ar­eas of na­ture in which to in­tro­duce visi­tors to the rugged beauty of the Hi­malayas.

We chose the Druk Path Trek, one of the most pop­u­lar treks, be­cause of its di­verse scenery, the chal­leng­ing ter­rain and the ap­peal of six days of trekking and camp­ing. In other words, six days away from ur­ban civ­i­liza­tion, the dis­trac­tions of me­dia, sched­ules and amped up busy-ness.

The Druk Path, as with many trekking paths in Bhutan, fol­lows a well-worn an­cient route. The trekking paths are largely un­marked, mak­ing guides in­dis­pens­able. Ex­cept for rock cairns in the near dis­tance, there are no blazes, trail signs or di­rec­tional ar­rows.

Be­fore head­ing out on the Druk Path, our tour group com­pleted a short warmup hike, de­signed to pre­pare us for the ex­pe­ri­ence of trekking at high al­ti­tudes. Our des­ti­na­tion was the fa­mous Tak­t­sang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest Monastery, near Paro, the city of en­trance and exit for most visi­tors. Perched on the side of a sheer cliff, 900 me­tres above the Paro Val­ley, the Tiger’s Nest is the most fa­mous of Bhutan’s monas­ter­ies.

Bhutan is a land of many sto­ries, and leg­end says that Guru Rin­poche flew to this site in the sev­enth cen­tury on the back of a ti­gress in or­der to sub­due a lo­cal de­mon.

The 1½-hour hike was a steep climb and the pound­ing in our lungs and heart sent a very clear mes­sage that we were hik­ing with de­creased oxy­gen lev­els. In­struc­tions from our guide floated like a mantra: Walk slowly, fo­cus on your breath­ing. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth.

In other words, fo­cus on the mo­ment.

On a sunny day, the white walls of the Tiger’s Nest gleam ra­di­antly in con­trast with the black cliff and the bright blue sky. But we were trav­el­ling at the end of the rainy sea­son (June to Septem­ber) and were pre­pared for the fact that we might not get all the stun­ning Hi­malayan views we had seen in mag­a­zines and guide­books. As we stopped for our morn­ing tea break, the foggy mist shroud­ing the monastery parted to re­veal our first view of the im­pos­si­ble-look­ing monastery. Alas, the sun was tem­po­rary and we ended our hike in the rain, which be­came in­dica­tive of our trekking days ahead.

Our real trek be­gan the fol­low­ing day when we met the sup­port crew con­sist­ing of 16 small horses, two horse­men, two cooks and three guid­ing trainees who joined our prin­ci­pal guide, Chun­jur. Sud­denly our lit­tle trekking group of eight seemed more ro­bust. The horse train car­ried all sup­plies needed for the next six days: cook tent, din­ing tent, sleep­ing tents, camp­ing mats, gas cylin­ders, food for 15 peo­ple, and a limit of one carry-all bag per per­son. We were re­lieved to see the box of eggs care­fully strapped to the back of one of the train­ing guides.

Start­ing out at 2,500 me­tres, our first day seemed idyl­lic as we climbed steadily along a wide road. A morn­ing sun made the up­hill climb seem hot, a heat we would come to long for by the next day. The road nar­rowed and be­came a path as we passed the last of the farms and tra­di­tional houses with their ex­posed tim­ber frames, whitewashed walls and metal roofs held down with heavy stones to pre­vent them from lift­ing dur­ing high winds.

Munch­ing on ap­ples given to us by a woman work­ing in her gar­den, we climbed past prayer wheels and strings of prayer flags flap­ping in the wind.

As we neared 3,000 me­tres, the dense for­est be­came more lush and droplets of dew were vis­i­ble on ten­drils of moss hang­ing from the blue pine trees. Rather than be­ing par­a­sitic, the moss is a good in­di­ca­tion of a healthy ecosys­tem and ac­tu­ally adds more oxy­gen to the air at these higher al­ti­tudes. Marginally more, but the thought was enough for me to breathe deeper.

The rain that be­gan that first af­ter­noon wasn’t enough to dampen the ex­cite­ment of ar­riv­ing at our first camp­site lo­cated in a pas­ture be­low the soar­ing Jili Dzong, an­other monastery on a cliff side.

The next five days played out with much the same rou­tine as the first. We woke early with the grey light of dawn and hot tea de­liv­ered to our tent at 7 a.m. We washed our faces and necks with wa­ter heated in the cook tent. Over break­fast of por­ridge or eggs and toast, we com­mis­er­ated about the

chal­lenge of sleep­ing at high al­ti­tude – it’s amaz­ing how loud and fast your heart beats dur­ing a long silent night. Well, ac­tu­ally, the night was not silent. The horses grazed all night in the pas­ture sur­round­ing our tents and one of the horses wore a clank­ing bell.

We would walk through­out the morn­ing un­til hot tea and a snack ar­rived with the one horse that would walk sep­a­rate from the rest of its pack. We savoured this mo­ment each day, of­ten in the rain.

Each time the rain started, we all stopped to re­trieve rain jack­ets and pants even though we might take them off again in 20 min­utes. The trails be­came small creeks with the ever-present rain­wa­ter. Even with heads down, fo­cused on ev­ery step, it was easy to tell whether we were climb­ing or de­scend­ing by which way the wa­ter was flow­ing around our soggy boots, which were long past their wa­ter­proof claims.

Each day, there were a hun­dred sights, sounds and mo­ments to keep us grounded and rooted in the here and now. Some­times those sights were only in our imag­i­na­tion. On our sec­ond day of trekking, for ex­am­ple, we stopped mid­morn­ing at a spot along the trail. Where nor­mally the hiker would stand en­chanted with a view of Mount Jo­mol­hari, one of Bhutan’s un­climbed moun­tain peaks, ris­ing over 7,000 me­tres, we saw only fog and mist.

In­stead, we paid more at­ten­tion to what was around us: a ci­cada cho­rus so loud you had to raise your voice to be heard in con­ver­sa­tion; the heav­ily scented pine, ju­niper and cy­press forests; alpine wild­flow­ers so im­pos­si­bly del­i­cate and in­tri­cate; and the sound of your own breath­ing strug­gling to adapt to the thin­ning oxy­gen lev­els at 4,000 me­tres above sea level.

Af­ter five days of hik­ing and see­ing no one but our trekking com­pan­ions and sup­port team, we sud­denly re­al­ized there were peo­ple ap­proach­ing us on the trail ahead. Over a rise in the path, monks in red robes, down jack­ets and sneak­ers emerged from the mist. Two, then four, then even­tu­ally nine monks gath­ered in front of us to chat with our guide.

The scent of in­cense and camp­fire was fresh on their robes, and we learned that their small group, from the east­ern part of the coun­try, was on a pil­grim­age to bless the sa­cred lakes in the area. Only one kilo­me­tre later, we came across the re­mains of their camp from the night be­fore. Smoke curled out from un­der a rock ledge, and we could see where they had slept on the rocky ground, un­pro­tected from the night chill. They had no horse car­a­van, which made our sim­ple trav­els seem lux­u­ri­ous in com­par­i­son.

As we eased into the rhythm of our own ver­sion of a sim­ple jour­ney, the small­est com­forts brought im­mense plea­sure: the

feel­ing of dry wool socks; a hot lunch car­ried by the trusty horse greet­ing us at mid­day; sim­ply pre­pared evening din­ners that tasted like the finest gourmet food.

Even Chun­jur would some­times in­dulge our need for small ac­com­plish­ments by re­veal­ing the peak el­e­va­tion for the day on his smart­phone al­ti­tude app.

How­ever, cel­e­brat­ing that we’d made it to 3,900 me­tres and know­ing we had five kilo­me­tres still to go didn’t change the fact we had to trek two more as­cents be­fore our sum­mit at 4,220 me­tres, cross a river, then pick our way down a rock-strewn path stream­ing with rain­wa­ter be­fore get­ting to our tents and camp for the night.

Yet some­how, we tricked our minds into be­liev­ing that know­ing ex­actly “how much far­ther” would al­low us to be more pre­pared and in con­trol of what­ever was around the next curve in the path. Pre­pared for what, I’m not sure.

Trekking in Bhutan brought our need to count steps, mark ac­com­plish­ments and men­tally pre­pare for the un­known into sharp com­par­i­son in the light of this serene Bud­dhist cul­ture of liv­ing in the mo­ment.

For a few days, we were able to prac­tise a dif­fer­ent art: pay­ing at­ten­tion and stay­ing fo­cused in the here and now in­stead of get­ting hung up on the past or ob­sess­ing about the fu­ture, over which we have no con­trol any­way.

TOP: As part of a six-day trek, the hik­ing group crosses one of the many wa­tery and soggy high plateaus at over 3,700 me­tres. ABOVE: Paro is the pri­mary en­trance and exit for visi­tors to Bhutan be­cause it’s the only val­ley wide and long enough to ac­com­mo­date in­ter­na­tional flights. FAC­ING PAGE: Rain and mist add to the mys­tery of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery as visi­tors ap­proach on a 1 ½ -hour hike from Paro in Bhutan.

RIGHT: Stu­dents study and re­cite sa­cred Bud­dhist texts at the Pha­jod­ing Monastery in the moun­tains above Thim­phu. BE­LOW: One of the camp cooks makes de­lec­ta­ble “mo­mos” on the sec­ond-last day of the trek. Mo­mos are a South Asian-style steamed dumpling with veg­etable or chicken fill­ing.

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