‘THE ROOFTOP OF THE WORLD’

Vis­it­ing the Hi­malayas as a boomer proves you’re never too old for global ex­pe­di­tions

Windsor Star - - TRAVEL - AN­NIE GROER

Be­fore en­ter­ing ti­bet’s holi­est site, the sev­en­th­cen­tury jokhang Tem­ple, the de­vout prayed or pros­trated them­selves on the ground.

Ti­bet. Nepal. Bhutan. The names rolled of my tongue like a time­less Hi­malayan mantra.

I was itch­ing to go, but af­ter decades of solo ram­bling, I was done with han­dling tricky lo­gis­tics. Let some­one else — prefer­ably an es­tab­lished tour com­pany — ar­range flights, guides, ho­tels, bag­gage and, most im­por­tant, as­sorted visas and travel per­mits. Globe-trot­ting friends sug­gested Road Scholar, a do-it-all com­pany tar­get­ing trav­ellers of baby-boomer age and older, which is how I spent 16 days last spring in and around the cap­i­tal cities of Lhasa, Kath­mandu and Thim­phu. There were 11 of us, in our mid-50s to late 70s, with fit­ness and con­ge­nial­ity lev­els that ranged from im­pres­sive to du­bi­ous.

Led by two guides per city, we padded though Bud­dhist and Hindu holy sites. We watched stu­dents prac­tise, and thus pre­serve, the her­itage arts of paint­ing, carv­ing, weav­ing, boot-mak­ing and sculp­ture.

We tra­versed mu­se­ums and mar­kets, and com­pared the danc­ing skills of monks, archers, folk­loric troupes and or­di­nary folk. And we con­sumed a lot of yak: Meat that was grilled, stewed or ground and stuffed into dumplings called momo; yak milk and yak but­ter mixed into fer­mented tea; and yak cheese, eaten dried and crunchy, or cooked low, slow and oozy with spicy green chilies.

On bal­ance, Road Scholar — founded in 1975 as Elder­hos­tel and mer­ci­fully re-branded in 2010 — pro­vided a fas­ci­nat­ing look at what has been dubbed “the rooftop of the world.” The trip was not per­fect, but then again all I had to do was show up.

Shortly af­ter we landed in Lhasa, el­e­va­tion 3,505 me­tres, my head be­gan to pound and my heart started to race. Al­ti­tude sick­ness aside (I stupidly opted not to take the pre­scrip­tion meds in my bag), I was eager to ex­plore the cap­i­tal of China’s Ti­bet Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion.

We’d been warned not to dis­cuss pol­i­tics dur­ing our four days in Lhasa, es­pe­cially the cur­rent Dalai Lama who fled to In­dia in 1959 amid Bei­jing ’s bloody crack­down on Ti­bet.

Our fo­cus was strictly Bud­dhism and cul­ture. Be­fore en­ter­ing Ti­bet’s holi­est site, the sev­enth-cen­tury Jokhang Tem­ple, the de­vout prayed or pros­trated them­selves on the ground.

In­side, the scent of but­ter lamps and in­cense drifted over the crush of pil­grims who inched past daz­zling relics, mu­rals and the most sa­cred Jowo Shakya­muni, a gilded, be­jew­elled Bud­dha re­port­edly made when he was 12. The pil­grims’ faith was pal­pa­ble. Far calmer was Tse Wang Tan Pa, a physi­cian at the Ti­betan Tra­di­tional Hospi­tal, who ex­plained cen­turies-old anatom­i­cal and botanic thangka paint­ings de­pict­ing ail­ing pa­tients and nat­u­ral reme­dies be­fore he checked our pulses — both wrists — and in­spected a few tongues.

Get more ex­er­cise, he coun­selled one; eat less sugar, he told an­other be­fore leav­ing to see pa­tients, three of whom had in­ter­rupted his lec­ture with phone calls.

Our ma­jor field trip was a 120-kilo­me­tre bus ride from Lhasa to a set­tle­ment of semi-no­mads, where yak but­ter tea (an ac­quired taste), dried cheese (a nice salt jolt) and sweet cakes (tasty) were served in a mod­est fam­ily com­pound. Hand­made ta­pes­tries cov­ered doors and win­dows, and posters hail­ing Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party lead­ers leaned against a wall. In a nearby room, thangkas honour­ing ances­tors shared space with a Mickey Mouse blan­ket. Back in Lhasa, a young, cos­tumed troupe in­tent on keep­ing its cul­ture alive per­formed Ti­betan opera and tra­di­tional dance, in­clud­ing the best two-man ca­vort­ing yak we would see.

My own terp­si­chorean mo­ment came in Zongjiao Lukang Park in the shadow of Po­tala, where hun­dreds of lo­cals dance to blar­ing recorded mu­sic.

I’d care­fully stud­ied the foot­work be­fore ac­cept­ing the hand of a burly chap sport­ing mir­rored shades, a black chuba and heavy Ti­betan jew­elry. We clocked a goodly num­ber of turns and two-steps un­til the al­ti­tude wiped me out. He bowed and burst out laugh­ing. So did I.

Two events a half-cen­tury apart com­prised what lit­tle I’d heard about Kath­mandu.

First, there was the late 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture in­va­sion fu­elled by then-le­gal hashish and cannabis; and then, the 2015 earth­quake and af­ter­shocks that killed nearly 9,000 peo­ple, left about 500,000 home­less and de­stroyed or dam­aged many im­por­tant Hindu and Bud­dhist tem­ples, palaces and pago­das.

To­day, post-dis­as­ter con­struc­tion is ev­ery­where in the dusty, dirty, traf­fic-choked city of one mil­lion (closer to five mil­lion when count­ing the sur­round­ing Kath­mandu Val­ley) jammed with end­less streams of diesel-belch­ing ve­hi­cles. We joined a group of Nepalis in­side the largely in­tact Ku­mari Ghar near Dur­bar Square, hop­ing to see Kath­mandu’s Liv­ing God­dess. Cho­sen last year at age three by her lo­cal clan as the em­bod­i­ment of divine fe­male en­ergy, she’ll be clois­tered in the palace save for rare out­ings un­til reach­ing pu­berty, when an­other girl-child re­places her. Fi­nally, briefly, she ap­peared in an up­stairs win­dow, her scar­let dress match­ing her painted lips, her eyes out­lined in black kohl.

From the Liv­ing God­dess, we tran­si­tioned to the newly de­parted at the Hindu cre­ma­tion ghats (stone steps) on the banks of the city’s sa­cred Bag­mati River. Sit­ting on the op­po­site bank, we watched fam­i­lies care­fully wash and grieve their shrouded loved ones, soon to be lit afire en route to the next life. We were, in fact, on the grounds of Nepal’s holi­est Hindu tem­ple, Pashu­pati­nath, which is closed to non-Hin­dus. Rather than vis­it­ing other ma­jor houses of wor­ship there, I zoomed in on the sad­hus, as­cetics who re­nounce the world to em­bark on re­li­gious quests. Some fre­quent tourist-thronged holy sites like this one. Dressed in lay­ers of red, or­ange and yel­low with elab­o­rate face paint­ing, they serenely posed for pho­tos in re­turn for alms.

Our five days in greater Kath­mandu were not solely Hindu-cen­tric, given the coun­try’s deep Bud­dhist in­flu­ence. (Bud­dha was born in 523 BC in what is now Nepal). On sep­a­rate days, we saw the city’s two ma­jor stu­pas, enor­mous half­dome holy ed­i­fices built on square bases and topped by pointed spires painted with four sets of Bud­dha’s all-see­ing eyes.

The loveli­est mo­ment came midtrip at the Dhu­likhel Moun­tain Re­sort, about 30 km out­side Kath­mandu. As I walked the grounds with chief gar­dener Prem Raj Giri, he proudly showed off his flow­ers and handed me a lemon grass bun­dle he’d just deftly tied. “It makes very good tea,” he promised. It did. It seemed fit­ting to end the tri­fecta in Bhutan, the land of “Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness.” Fly­ing over the high­est peaks of the east­ern Hi­malayas, the plane cir­cled, banked hard and landed be­tween heav­ily forested Paro Val­ley cliffs.

Since 1972, when then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the term and de­clared, “Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness more im­por­tant than Gross Na­tional Prod­uct,” Bhutan’s lead­ers have tried to ramp up the joy level of its nearly 800,000 cit­i­zens.

While the no­tion of giv­ing value to health, ed­u­ca­tion and per­sonal well-be­ing is gain­ing global trac­tion, Bhutan is not yet Scan­di­navia, an of­fi­cial con­ceded. Vis­i­tors, how­ever, have much to ad­mire: crys­talline wa­ters, gor­geous scenery, or­ganic farm­ing, craft-beer brew­eries, great climb­ing and hik­ing, rich hand­i­crafts and tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture that some­how evokes Swiss chalets. And there was no miss­ing the phal­luses — painted on house-fronts or carved into amulets dan­gling from the eaves — used to re­pel as­sorted evils.

The phal­lus prac­tice be­gan with Lama Drukpa Kun­ley, dubbed the Divine Mad­man, who spread Bud­dhism through Bhutan in the 15th and 16th cen­turies us­ing sex, song and raunchy hu­mour, as well as scrip­ture and rit­ual.

There are ob­sta­cles to see­ing Bhutan: tightly con­trolled tourist visas and a US$250 daily spend­ing min­i­mum — it in­cludes ho­tels, lo­cal guides, meals and trans­porta­tion — in­tended to gen­er­ate rev­enue and pro­tect the coun­try’s frag­ile en­vi­ron­ment from hordes of bud­get trav­ellers.

Archery, Bhutan’s na­tional sport, of­fered its own spec­ta­cle. Ar­rows must travel at least 140 me­tres to hit a melon-sized tar­get painted on a board about 30 cen­time­tres wide and one me­tre high.

Op­pos­ing teams face each other at both ends of the range. Even half­drunk — the days-long matches in­volve much al­co­hol — the archers of­ten hit their mark and rarely wound each other.

We gladly toasted the vic­tors with K5 Hi­malayan Whiskey, a brand that is slang for Bhutan’s King Jigme Kh­e­sar Nam­gyel Wangchuck, the coun­try’s fifth monarch.

Our last day in Thim­phu was re­served for the ar­du­ous climb to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, about 12 km from Paro and built onto a sheer cliff at just over 3,000 me­tres in el­e­va­tion.

Only four from our group reached the high­est look­out point; the rest dropped out along the way.

Ow­ing to a wonky knee, I skipped the hike al­to­gether in favour of a mas­sage at the ho­tel spa — how bet­ter to prac­tise Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness?

PHO­TOS: AN­NIE GROER/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Some sad­hus fre­quent tourist-thronged holy sites like this one at Dur­bar Square in Kath­mandu, Nepal. Dressed in lay­ers of red, or­ange and yel­low with their faces painted elab­o­rately, the sad­hus pose for pho­tos in re­turn for alms.

Many im­por­tant Hindu and Bud­dhist tem­ples, palaces and pago­das in Kath­mandu were badly dam­aged dur­ing a deadly earth­quake in 2015.

On a rainy morn­ing, a de­vout Bud­dhist pro­tects his prayer wheel with plas­tic while do­ing a kora, a clock­wise walk around holy sites.

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