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Happy Together

Tradition meets modernity in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Story and Photography by Kate Siber

My own journey started with the notoriously precarious flight into the country that only a handful of pilots are qualified to make. After my pilot casually mentioned that we could see Everest and Kangchenjunga, the third-tallest mountain in the world, from the left side of the plane, he banked hard, stomach-testing turns, navigated tight valleys as our wings barely missed the steep mountainsides, and descended with gusto before skidding to the very end of the minute airstrip, delicately positioned on what seems like the only patch of flat land in the country. We were in the province of Paro, in western Bhutan.

Because there are so few roads and services in Bhutan, my itinerary, out of necessity, was pretty much the same as most tourists’. I traveled from Paro to Thimpu, the capital city, to the beautiful lowland valley of Punakha, which is garnished with a spectacular dzong, and through the monasteries and highlands of central Bhutan before backtracking. My small ad-hoc group included another solo traveler, Enrique, a Spanish trekking guide who was preparing for a group trip he plans to offer in April, and two Bhutanese guides, Chencho, and Dorje Phuntsho, from Bae-Yul Excursions, the requisite tour service I hired.

No matter how wide and far a person may have traveled, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to resist Bhutan’s trance, brought on mostly by the intense spirituality infused in every aspect of life. I was no exception. Before setting off for Thimpu, I visited Taktshang Goemba—“Tiger’s Nest”—a monastery hanging off a cliff that requires a long, breath-stealing uphill hike. Bhutanese believe that Guru Rinpoche, the eighth-century religious figure who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, flew to the perch on a tiger and meditated there for three months. To me, the idea of building a monastery on this precarious spot seemed downright harebrained at first, but after I received holy water from quiet monks in front of golden Buddhas, then ogled the view from the small balcony, it seemed unmistakably obvious. Amid only the breezes, sunshine, and views of unmarred forests and mountains, this was a singularly perfect place for spiritual practices of any ilk.

A few days later, I began the 35-mile trek to Thimpu on the Druk Path, which Phuntsho said his grandparents had traveled on horseback before the road between Paro and Thimpu was built. Most visitors travel this leg by car, so I only saw two other hikers over the course of four days. Soon, though, the Department of Tourism plans to transform the Druk Path into a community-based trek. Such treks will be aimed at dispersing visitors around the country and throughout the year (nearly half of all international visitors currently arrive in March and April), and will benefit remote villages by allowing the local people to offer camping, cooking, entertainment, and handicrafts. In November 2006, the first community-based trek, Nabji Korphu, in the central Bumthang region, officially opened to visitors. Best hiked in winter, when temperatures are mild, it leads through the low, tropical broadleaf forests of Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, inhabited by endangered golden langurs and rufous-necked hornbills, and scattered with tiny mountain hamlets. Money from the visitors who trek the seven-day route goes to projects like building irrigation ditches, renovating monasteries, and organizing community events and festivals.

My group traveled through the high mountains and operated in the typical Bhutanese fashion: leisurely and luxurious. A cook, two horsemen, and a trekking guide accompanied the four of us, and mules carried our provisions, tents, and a slew of fold-up tables and chairs. Most days we walked for fewer than five hours at a gentle pace, focused more on the scenery than on our progress. The first day, the scenery included apple orchards, moss forests, and a small village, where every yard hosted a mess of horses and chickens.

That first evening, I climbed up to a tiny monastery. The wind whipped the prayer flags that were strung along a ridge to send written prayers to heaven on the breezes. A boy monk hidden in the wind-rattled stone tower sang a stark, melodic phrase, but other than those hushed murmurs, there was silence. This was another corner of the world that held much spiritual power, obvious even to an atheist like myself. I emptied my brain of thoughts and watched the shifting sea of prayer flags in front of a crisp skyline of peaks, dark against the setting sun.

For the next three days, we traveled along rolling, exposed ridges and through forests of pines and rhododendrons, alternately climbing and descending. Our efforts were rewarded with views of 23,997-foot Chomolhari, Bhutan’s highest peak, and other royally magnificent peaks; cloudless nights; and evenings spent feasting on curries and Bhutanese specialties, like chilies in cheese sauce, next to a campfire. Temperatures plummeted after dark, but we were well-fed, well-warmed, and tuckered out from the alpine wind, sun, and walking. We slept soundly.

By day we chatted with yak herders and passed lakes that the Bhutanese believe are haunted by fickle, powerful spirits. One morning we found evidence of one of the world’s most elusive creatures, a snow leopard, who had unsuccessfully stalked our mules after dark. By night, we chatted about Arnold Schwarzenegger films and movie stars who have visited Bhutan—“I saw Demi Moore one time!” chimed in quiet, shy Phutsho one evening as we huddled around the fire.

In many ways, my guides, particularly Chencho, personified the country’s transformation. In my room later in Punakha, Chencho told me about the nature of his Buddhist practice and how he performs rituals in his hometown’s temple in order to appease his protective deities while he flicked through channels looking for English soccer, a country-wide obsession. He adores basketball just as much as archery, Bhutan’s national sport, and listens to Kenny Rogers and 50 Cent as well as Bhutanese traditional and pop songs. He was constantly punching text messages into his phone but also prostrated solemnly in front of shrines in temples without hesitation.

Chencho, who is 28, is a prime representative of the first generation of Bhutanese to be introduced to Western life—a generation that grew up with an aching awareness of the outside world and a desire for its trappings. Modernization has come late but quickly to Bhutan. Until the ‘50s, when the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck initiated the process, the country was essentially a feudalist state, operating much as it had been for centuries. With the help of subsidies from India and other countries, it slowly developed an infrastructure of roads, national health care, and education. In 1971, Bhutan joined the United Nations and established ties with other countries. It was only recently, in 1999, that television and the Internet were introduced; cell phones only came two years ago.

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