Happy Together

Tradition meets modernity in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan

By Kate Siber

Photo 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.

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Issue 25

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