‘THE ROOFTOP OF THE WORLD’
Visiting the Himalayas as a boomer proves you’re never too old for global expeditions
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 seminomads, 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.
Before entering TiBet’s holiest site, the seventhCentury JokhAng Temple, the devout prAyedor prostrAted themselves on the ground.
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 half-drunk — 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?
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.
Near the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, a monk stands still among the pigeons, begging bowl in hand, while another makes his way through the square.
On a rainy morning, a devout Buddhist protects his prayer wheel with plastic while doing a kora, a clockwise walk around holy sites.